VANCOUVER – When he arrived 3½ years ago with the Vancouver Canucks, mostly unwanted by fans clamouring for someone younger, Ryan Miller was regarded as a highly strung, fiercely-competitive goaltender whose ability on the ice was offset by prickliness away from it.
By the time he left on July 1 to sign a free-agent contract with the Anaheim Ducks that took him home to Southern California, Miller was viewed here instead as a hockey statesman, an unselfish and eloquent pro who did everything he could to help his teammates and team.
Even stopping 91.4 per cent of the shots he faced the last three seasons, Miller went only 64-68-16 for a Canucks team that was beyond saving many nights. He played only three playoff games – all while injured.
Yet, with the benefit of perspective that becoming a father provided, Miller probably left Vancouver as a better person than when he arrived, having successfully reframed the discussion surrounding him.
At age 37, he does not view as wasteful those three precious seasons near the end of his National Hockey League career spent playing for a team hopelessly far from competing for a Stanley Cup, which Miller has never won.
“There’s no guarantees for anything in life,” he says on the phone from Anaheim. “Just because you play X amount of years doesn’t entitle you to anything. I think you have to go into every opportunity with an open mind and an open heart and compete as hard as you can. In that regard, I went up to Vancouver and did everything I could do.
“I played as hard as I could and tried to get out and be part of the city. In the end, I think people got to know me a little better, which I was happy about. I tried to compete as hard as I could whenever I was on the ice; I hope that was enough for people.”
Judging by reaction this week on social media, it was more than enough.
Miller has been one of the best goalies of his generation. As he showed in Vancouver, he is devoted to his craft and his team. He is an articulate and accountable leader. No wonder the Ducks were thrilled to sign him for two years and $4 million to back up and mentor 24-year-old starter John Gibson.
It is difficult to peg Miller’s place in Canucks history because the team in front of him was so poor the last two seasons. On many nights, the goalie from Los Angeles by way of East Lansing, Mich., was the best thing the Canucks had going for them.
Even at $6 million per season in Vancouver, Miller never cheated anyone. He embraced both his team and his city. His wife, Noureen DeWulf, put her acting career on hold to live most of the time in Yaletown with her husband and their son, Bodhi, who was born here in 2015.
Miller seemed to get much more than money from his Vancouver experience.
“When I came up there, I set out as a goal to become part of the group and win hockey games,” he says. “Towards the end, that didn’t go as planned. You give yourself a window of opportunity to do something, and it didn’t work out. But there’s an emotional attachment to the city. I was trying my hardest to have fun up there and acclimate. My son was born there.
“I was still on the (Canucks players’) group text for a while, so I sent a message back explaining my thought process. I wanted them to know that family was a big part of my decision (to leave). I forged a lot of great relationships and felt very comfortable in Vancouver. I enjoyed my time there immensely. It was a tough decision, but I’m happy when I do have downtime that there’s more family time.”
It was Miller’s decision to leave. The Canucks had hoped to have him back and probably would have beaten the Ducks’ offer. But the goalie put his family first. Vancouver GM Jim Benning signed Buffalo Sabres free agent Anders Nilsson to a two-year, $5-million contract to compete with Canucks starter Jacob Markstrom.
“I want to win hockey games and want to contribute to my team, as always,” Miller says. “I value my family life and keep that in high regard and I wanted to make a decision that made me more present and available for my family, but still play at a high level. I think that’s the opportunity I found here with Anaheim.”
Miller says his wife landed a couple of acting jobs almost immediately upon their full-time return to the Los Angeles area, and she’s able to audition for roles on short notice. Their home is in West Hollywood, about an hour’s drive from Anaheim, but the family also rents a place in Orange County.
After starting the Ducks season on injured reserve with a wrist injury, Miller has been superb in two starts, stopping 78 of 82 shots while splitting a couple of shootout decisions. He played the final 10:44 of Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings when Gibson absorbed a blow to the head and left with 6:53 remaining in regulation.
The Ducks are expected to update Gibson’s condition Wednesday, but Miller is likely to start Thursday at home against the Canucks.
“Even just getting back into some of these games and being able to contribute to the team is nice,” Miller says. “My brother (Drew) started his career in Anaheim by winning a Stanley Cup in his rookie year. If I could finish mine here the same way, that would be an interesting perspective.”