Buffalo sports rarely get a share of the limelight on the National stage. Aside from only a handful of instances, our teams haven’t enjoyed great success over the last decade or so, and the mainstream media has never clamored to report on a city of our size or reputation.
But, sure enough, Buffalo will have its’ turn to shine this coming February in one of the biggest sporting events on the planet—the Winter Olympics.
Mostly because of one man who isn’t even from this city, ironically enough.
When Ryan Miller takes to the ice in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics, he’s going to have an entire country behind him as he challenges for the gold medal, but there’s no question where his greatest support will emanate from; his hometown of East Lansing, Michigan, and his adoptive hometown of Buffalo, New York.
This isn’t to say that Western New Yorkers will forget about Team USA’s true Buffalo native, Patrick Kane, but the two-time Stanley Cup winner of the Chicago Blackhawks doesn’t represent Buffalo the same way that Miller does.
At 33 years of age, it feels as if Miller has grown up in Buffalo just as any young athlete has. He first emerged on the scene when he was only 22, and he’s been the face of the Buffalo Sabres franchise for more than eight years now.
He’s extended his bond with Buffalo far beyond the hockey rink, perhaps more than any other Sabre in recent memory. His charity, the Steadfast Foundation, has partnered with local organizations like Roswell Cancer Institute, Carly’s Club and Perry’s Ice Cream, and has established long-running events like Catwalk for Charity. He donates his suite inside First Niagara Center to children from Carly’s Club for them to enjoy Sabres home games and other events.
“I think the experiences interacting with the community, and especially kids facing adversity, has confirmed for Ryan how important compassion and true support is to anyone and everyone,” said Miller’s father, Dean Miller, in an interview with Sabres Hockey Central. “In team sports you work to support each other. It’s no different in the community.”
Miller has even been well-known to take a casual jaunt about Elmwood Avenue with his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, as if they were just any ordinary couple heading to the Globe Market or Walgreens.
Whenever he’s engaged in “Yo Momma” joke battles for Amp Energy commercials, made special appearances on network shows like Sullivan and Son, and led Team USA to a Silver medal in the thrilling 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Buffalo fans have always thought one thing.
That’s our goalie.
They’ll be thinking the same thing in February as they cheer him on to led Team USA through the Olympic hockey tournament. It should be especially satisfying for Buffalo fans after the emphatic statement Miller made in the tail end of 2013 that he was the goalie meant to start for Team USA.
“He’s the best goalie in the league,” said Sabres captain Steve Ott after Buffalo’s 2-1 shootout win over the Washington Capitals on December 29th. “And I don’t say that lightly by any means, I really think that.”
After all, there was doubt in the last few years, even in Buffalo. Miller never quite secured the same type of dominant year in the NHL that the year he went to the Olympics, where he finished with a .929 save percentage and won the Vezina Trophy. It didn’t help Miller’s cause that the Sabres as a team only saw one post-season berth in the years following the 2010-2011 NHL season.
All the while, other American-born goalies rose to prominence. Jonathan Quick was widely-believed to be the leading candidate for Team USA’s starting goaltender after his astounding run with the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, which saw him win the cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy while amassing three shutouts and a .946 save percentage.
But one way or another, all of those goalies fell back down to the earth—and in some cases, much further than that—throughout the first few months of the 2013-2014 NHL season.
Miller has taken a very different approach. Despite being on a struggling Sabres club that has only just begun its rebuilding process, he’s looked outstanding in between the pipes. Miller has faced more shots than any other netminder in the NHL, and still has come out with a .927 save percentage. He stopped 278 shots in December alone, a month where he earned a .948 save percentage.
He’s seen [and won] more shootouts than any other Team USA contender this year alone, stopping 22 of 28 attempts and improving his record to 48-28, an NHL best. That’s invaluable experience for an Olympic goaltender, who may have to face the likes of Alexander Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos more than once in a shootout to guarantee a win in the opening round.
And if any Team USA goaltender is going to be charged with that task, there’s no one more capable than Miller.
After a shootout win against the Kings this season, where Miller made 43 saves, Tyler Ennis had commented on the goaltender’s performance. “I told him in the huddle after the game, ‘Every time I think you’re the best goalie in the world, you are even better than I think,'” Ennis said.
Sabres interim head coach Ted Nolan perhaps said it best –
“When [Ryan]’s on, I don’t think there’s much better.”