Catching Up With ... Kip Miller
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Kip Miller wasn't the first Hobey Baker Award winner to find it difficult to crack the NHL, and he won't be the last.
But after years of perseverance, Miller has spent the last two seasons completely in the NHL for the first time in his career.
"My game has changed over the years," he says. "The NHL is tough. You have to get in the right place at the right time, and you have to be a good fit. And when I came to Pittsburgh, I found it."
Miller, 31, came to Pittsburgh via the waiver draft before the 1998-99 season. To that point, he had played 90 NHL games over eight years as a pro. In the following two seasons, he played 151 NHL games and hasn't been in the minors since.
Still, he had a to sweat it out this summer. After a year and half and 23 goals with the Penguins, they traded him to Anaheim in the middle of last season, for a ninth-round draft pick. Pittsburgh eventually decided it wanted Miller back.
"I had a little worry this summer because I didn't get too many calls," Miller says. "Now that I'm here, I'm feeling comfortable with my role."
"A lot of guys nowadays have pro teams that were their favorite teams. For us it was Michigan State. That's what we watched every weekend."
The Penguins are a very 21st-Century type of team, loaded with players from the Czech Republic, including their leader, Jaromir Jagr, and their coach, Ivan Hlinka. It also includes interesting characters Matthew Barnaby and Darius Kasparaitis.
"We have a fun team and we get along really well. It's a relaxed atmosphere."
Miller, with nine points, is actually the top-scoring North American on the team.
"They all speak English, but guys get into their circles and you say, 'Hey, what are you talking about?' But we don't care. Everyone gets along."
The Michigan State days were a different kind of family affair. Miller, a native of Lansing, Mich., came to the East Lansing campus following in the footsteps of older brothers, Kelly and Kevin.
By the time Kip started at Michigan State in 1986-87, Kelly was already an established NHL player who went on to play over 1,000 games in "the show." Kevin had just finished his sophomore season, during which the Spartans won the NCAA Championship for the first time in 20 years.
But Kip insists there was no pressure to follow his brothers' success.
"There wasn't pressure," he says. "There was [a feeling that] I grew up watching them and wanted to play there, and it was excitement. You wanted to be the best, you wanted to achieve more. It was a pride factor.
"A lot of guys nowadays have pro teams that were their favorite teams. For us it was Michigan State. That's what we watched every weekend, and when we got there, we thought, 'Gee, maybe we can play at the next level.'"
As a freshman, Kip established himself with a 22-goal season. It was a high-flying team with two 40-goal scorers (Bill Shibicky and Mitch Messier), as well as players like Tom Tilley, Chris Luongo, Don McSween, Danton Cole, Bob Essensa and Norm Foster.
The Spartans reached the finals again that season, only to run into the "Hrkac Circus" — North Dakota's top line, led by Hobey Baker winner and tournament MVP Tony Hrkac — and a brick wall named Ed Belfour.
"That was the biggest game I played in," says Miller. "I was a kid. I didn't even know about it. So it was a treat."
Miller spent the next three years expecting to get another chance in the finals. But it never worked out that way.
In 1988, Michigan State knocked off Harvard in the first round, then lost to Minnesota in the quarterfinals. The following season, Kip was the only Miller left on the team, and it was his turn to step it up. He scored 32 goals and tied for the team lead with 77 points. But, after getting past Boston College in the quarterfinals, this time the Spartans ran into another team of destiny, as Harvard exacted revenge and defeated them in the semifinal en route to the school's only national championship.
In 1989-90, Miller made one last assault on a national title. With Jason Muzzatti in net, the Spartans went 35-7-3, and Miller went crazy, scoring 48 goals, as the Spartans entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1. But, after winning Game 1 of a best-of-3 against Boston University at home, the Spartans dropped the next two, and the dream died.
"Those are regrets and you wish things could've worked out differently, but not everyone can win," Miller says.
To provide some consolation, Miller did earn one thing his brothers never did: A Hobey Baker Award. Ironically, though, it was Kip who had the hardest time cracking the NHL.
Kip wound up in places like Halifax, Kalamazoo and Kansas City, waiting for the call. He thought being taken in the expansion draft by San Jose would be a positive, but he wound up in just 11 NHL games with the Sharks. In 1996-97, he spent the entire year in the IHL. He finally found a home in Pittsburgh, at least for now.
Lansing is still his "real" home, though. His father and his kids still go to see the Spartans play, though Kip rarely can these days. But he keeps in touch with the program, even the new guys.
"I go back there every summer. I live there, I skate with those guys, I keep track of them," Miller says. "Guys like [Mike] York and [Anson] Carter, we skate and scrimmage together. I didn't even play with those guys, but we know them."
Miller sees advanced opportunities these days for college players trying to crack the NHL.
"The game's changing. They're playing a lot more tight checking and hitting styles than they used to," Miller says. "The old stigma was, the college guys weren't tough enough or big enough. That's changed over the years. If you're good enough, you're going to make it.
"The [NCAA single-season] record of 59 [goals] will never be broken in the game today. Back then, we scored a lot of goals. Our game was geared around an offensive system."
Miller has respect for long-time Spartans mentor Ron Mason, the NCAA's all-time winningest coach, who has recognized that change and adapted.
"He's a really good coach," Miller says. "He's thinking ahead of the game. He keeps the players tight and working hard.
"I've seen his systems change over the years, where he coached a very offensive team, now he's turned to a very defensive, big defenseman type of team. They get it out, get it in and outwork teams."
And what happens when that day comes and Miller returns to Lansing?
"I see myself playing as long as I can," he says. "If I can't play at this level, then I'll give it another thought. After hockey, I'm not quite sure yet. It's tough to even get it into focus."