The Buffalo’s Sabres victory over the New York Islanders on Saturday, February 4th, 2012 may not have much significance in the long run for what has been a tough season all around. But when placed against the backdrop of the franchise’s 41-year history, its significance emerges through Ryan Miller claiming the record for most wins by a Sabres goaltender.
“I’m proud of it. I’m proud of being a Buffalo Sabre,” Miller said following the contest.
Famed netminder Dominik Hasek previously held the record with 234 wins, and after his stellar run with Buffalo it was hard to imagine that any goalie could challenge The Dominator for the top spot, never mind surpass him.
The changes to the NHL made after the 2004-2005 lockout certainly rewrote the rules for goaltenders, though, by removing the possibility of a game ending in a tie, and the addition of the shootout to decide a victory. Even Miller himself recognizes that his task has not quite been the same as Hasek’s.
“I’m going to take [the record] for what it is because I think Dom would have won a few shootouts in his day,” Miller said with a smile the night he tied the record with his 234th career win.
But Miller respectfully withholds mentioning that he’s managed to leapfrog past Hasek after not even seven full seasons with the Sabres, while Hasek spent nine years playing in Buffalo.
Being the two most accomplished goaltenders in the organization’s history, comparisons will always be made. Of course, Miller has plenty of work left to do if he wishes to grab Hasek’s claim to fame as the most lauded goaltender in Sabres history.
In addition to the marvelous stats that Hasek accrued while in Buffalo (which include the second-highest single-season save percentage of all time from the 1998-1999 season), he also has his name on the Stanley Cup, which he earned in his first season with the Detroit Redwings in 2002. Many fans may not be aware that he also led the Czech Republic national team to a Gold Medal during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano,Japan.
Hasek was 33 years old then, and 36 when he won the NHL’s most coveted prize. At 31 years of age, Miller has plenty of time to close the distance, and should he ever to win a Stanley Cup with the Sabres, it would provide him the single greatest advantage in determining which Buffalo goaltender has the edge.
Until then, Miller’s establishing his own legacy in his own time. Like any great goaltender, Miller has single-handedly won more games for his team than any other Sabre during his tenure. And unlike even some of history’s most elite goaltenders, he’s become the face of his franchise.
It didn’t begin smoothly. Understandably, few remember the dark ages of the franchise which were the years leading up to the lockout, and when Miller debuted with the Sabres. He only played in 18 games during his first two seasons, going 6-11-1, including 0-3-0 during his second year. It wasn’t until the season directly following the lockout that he resurfaced, secured the starting netminder position, and led the Sabres through one of their most memorable playoff runs.
Back then he was just 25 years old, and sported the long locks of hair which his helmet couldn’t contain. That, coupled with his playoff beards, eventually led to comedic comparisons with Christianity’s Jesus Christ, including the popular saying among fans – “Miller Saves.”
The Buffalo Sabres fans have literally watched Miller grow up before their eyes. Once a young kid breaking onto the scene, Miller is now one of the oldest members of the Sabres roster. He hasn’t seen the same playoff success as he did early on in his NHL career, but he’s encountered other triumphs.
For nearly two weeks in February of 2010 he commanded the nation’s attention, and turned some heads towards Buffalo, as he put on a performance for the ages in the Winter Olympics inVancouver. Miller carried a youthful, spirited American squad to a Silver Medal, and was named the tournament’s MVP by finishing with a 5-0-1 record, a 1.35 goals against average, and an astounding .946 save percentage.
Just a few months later on June 23rd, he claimed a pair of honors at the NHL Award Ceremony in Las Vegas. Miller became only the second Sabres goaltender in history to be awarded the Vezina Trophy, which he earned after a regular season where he finished with a 2.22 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.
Following a disappointing playoff performance where the Sabres were ousted by the Boston Bruins in the opening round, Miller’s accomplishment for his work in between the pipes was a definite reprieve for Sabres fans.
“[The Buffalo fans’] passion for hockey makes every game a lot of fun,” he said during his acceptance speech, drawing several cheers from the crowd.
That same night, Miller became the first American player to win the NHL Foundations Award, for his work with the Steadfast Foundation.
Although the organization is based in his hometown of East Lansing,Michigan, Miller has brought the Steadfast Foundation’s mission over to Western New York. The charity, which works to support those suffering from cancer-related illness (particularly young patients) and their families, sponsors the psychological programs offered by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Carly’s Club, both Western New York-based establishments dedicated to the treatment of cancer.
“His compassion for those battling adversity, and in particular young cancer patients in Western New York is just a natural extension of who Ryan is and his belief in the support and interaction those individuals deserve from other community members,” said Ryan’s father and co-founder of the Steadfast Foundation, Dean Miller, “He and Steadfast support programs that help young cancer patients get to a healthier state of mind so they can better battle for their lives.”
Miller has formed affiliations for the Steadfast Foundation with non-medical groups, as well. In 2008 he teamed up with local ice cream manufacturer Perry’s to create the delicious, and cleverly-named flavor Breakaway Berrier. The dark chocolate and raspberry-laced ice cream is sold in retail stores all across Western New York, and a portion of all proceeds goes directly to the Steadfast Foundation and the organizations associated with it.
The Steadfast Foundation’s primary fundraiser comes in the form of the annual Catwalk for Charity, which recently held its sixth successful event at the end of 2011. Every year, Miller brings his teammates together in a themed fashion show-esque outing to entertain the fans, who may also partake in a variety of auctions featuring Sabres memorabilia.
Miller has demonstrated great appreciation for the Sabres faithful, and he has no qualms about going out in public about Buffalo. Beyond the countless meet-and-greets and autograph sessions he’s participated in, he’s been spotted shopping on Elmwood Avenue, and has been seen dropping in at a local Walgreens with his wife, Noureen.
“I think Ryan has shown that he is a member of the Western New York and greater Buffalo community – he just happens to work for the Buffalo Sabres organization,” said Miller’s father, “He lives in Buffalo, shops at Wegmans, frequents local shops and restaurants, and is a good neighbor.”
At the moment, it doesn’t appear that this portion of Sabres history that we’re currently enjoying will be placed on a pedestal high above all other eras of the franchise, but it does boast a fine collection of great memories.
Miller will always be linked to those memories and whichever new ones may be created in the near future more than any other Sabre for his dedication to the team and, most importantly, the Buffalo community.
It’s easy to imagine that he’s pleased with that.