Sam Donnellon: The skinny on USA goalie Miller

Members of Team USA congratulate Ryan Miller after beating Switzerland in the quarterfinals.
Members of Team USA congratulate Ryan Miller after beating Switzerland in the quarterfinals.
Posted: February 26, 2010

VANCOUVER - There are two good reasons that 137 players were chosen before Ryan Miller was selected in the 1999 draft.

One is the number of goalies who left Michigan State with the stingiest of statistics, only to become incredibly generous once they reached the NHL.

The other is how he looked.

"I remember the first time I saw him play, and I was struck by how skinny he was," Team USA GM Brian Burke said the other day. "Even now, the guy should be doing ads for one of those weight-loss things.

"He's still a bone rack."

The Buffalo Sabres list Miller, 30, at 6-2, 175 pounds. With equipment on maybe, and late in the game, when sweat and melted ice have been added to the total.

Without it, even Lindsey Vonn probably could launch him from a seesaw.

Here's the oddest thing, though. The U.S. goaltender might look skinny to you and me, even with all that equipment on, but not to NHL goal scorers, and not to shooters in this Olympic tournament.

To them, it's kind of a reverse "Shallow Hal" thing: He's a 5-foot dude who stands about 6 feet wide.

"A brick wall," former Flyers defenseman Luca Sbisa said after Miller stopped 19 shots in the United States' 2-0 win against Switzerland on Wednesday.

The United States is the only unbeaten left in these Olympics heading into this afternoon's semifinal game against Finland, and Miller's play has been a big part of the reason. He stoned Canada on Sunday, limited the Swiss to a single goal over two games, allowed one goal in a 6-1 victory over Norway. All told, he's allowed five goals on 90 shots, a save percentage that is second behind the guy on the other side today, Mikka Kiprusoff.

These two are alike in that they treat the job as a position more than an audition.

"If I'm doing my job, everything is going to look very boring," Miller said before the tournament began. "That's what I'm focused on. It's not about stealing a game. It's about playing at the level where everything is going to be boring and I'm going to get hit in the chest every time."

When he was reminded of those words yesterday, he smirked.

"I was joking," he said. "I'm

really weak through the 'S.' "

Over the past week, though, teams seem to be trying to shoot through him rather than past him. Sbisa's point-blank shot after the U.S. took a 1-0 lead Wednesday hit Miller so hard in the chest, it knocked the wind out of him.

A tape-to-tape cross-ice pass somehow finds the middle of his body, too.

Miller is from a huge hockey-playing family, the tree extending back to his Canadian-born grandfather, Butch, who played hockey for Michigan State in the 1950s. Butch settled in East Lansing, and Miller and his younger brother Drew became the ninth and 10th Millers to play for the Spartans.

Drew plays with the Red Wings. Eight of the Millers were skaters, including Ryan's father, Dean, who preached one thing repeatedly to his goalie son.

"My dad always told me Sports Illustrated wasn't here taking pictures," he said. "Go out, make a save and move on."

Routine, routine, routine. That's been Miller's MO, at least until recently. Miller has learned that too much structure can stifle and suffocate.

"I've learned in the last few years, your routine can't be the end-all be-all," he said. "It's got to be flexible, because too many things can come up."

So he's opening up, he said. At age 30. He has a Hollywood girlfriend, Noureen DeWulf, to go with his chic clothing store in East Lansing. Yesterday, he spoke at length about the responsibilities that extend beyond the ice, giving back, selling his game to an indifferent America.

"He's the kind of guy who's constantly trying to get better at what he does," said U.S. center Chris Drury, his Buffalo teammate until 2007. "He never seems to have a day when he's not trying to get better at something. I don't see it as a white-knuckle intensity. He just knows where he wants to be. Tomorrow at 2:30, in the back of his mind, he knows where he wants to be 15 years from now."

Miller insists he's just trying to get past today, past the next few days, to a gold-medal victory that he thinks could stretch the sport's boundaries a little.

"It's almost a cult sport in the U.S.," he said. But if he gets that skinny body to look like the Great Wall two more times, maybe it can be more.

"These are the moments when we have the country's attention," he said. "I just try to look at it that way." *

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