Bond between Ryan Miller, Buffalo still holds strong

"I just feel like it's a place where I was able to grow up in Western New York"

Buffalo, N.Y. (WBEN) - For parts of 11 seasons, Ryan Miller was the backbone of the Sabres, patrolling the crease for 540 games in Buffalo.

A former fifth-round pick (138th overall) of the Sabres in the 1999 NHL Draft, Miller joined the organization after a standout career in college hockey at Michigan State University in 2002. In no time, Miller saw NHL action with the Sabres, where he eventually earned the No. 1 job in Buffalo during the 2005-06 season.

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From there, Miller was often looked at as one of the most consistent goaltenders in the league. During the 2009-10 season, Miller's game was at an all-time high, as he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender with a 41-18-8 record, a 2.22 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.

In addition, Miller was the best goaltender on the world stage, as he helped carry the United States to a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. In six games, Miller was stellar with a 5-1 record, a 1.35 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage en route to being named the tournament's best goalie, as well as the Most Valuable Player.

His only loss in the tournament came in the Gold Medal Game against rival Canada, where he was beat by Sidney Crosby in overtime of a 3-2 loss for the U.S.

After parts of four more seasons in Buffalo, Miller's career with the Sabres came to a bit of a tumultuous end with the team electing to turn a leaf on the old core in place. It was on Feb. 28, 2014 when the Sabres officially traded Miller to the St. Louis Blues, ending his stint in Western New York with a 284-186-57 record, a 2.60 goals-against average, a .916 save percentage and 28 shutouts.

Miller would continue to play another seven seasons in the NHL before calling it a career at the age of 40 during the 2020-21 pandemic-shortened season.

Over the summer, the Sabres announced their intentions to honor Miller for his time spent in Buffalo, inducting him into the Sabres Hall of Fame, while also retiring his No. 30 to the rafters of KeyBank Center as the eighth player in franchise history with that distinction.

More than seven months later, the Sabres gave Miller a great tribute that helped energize fans in the building and across the region.

"Excited is probably an understatement," said Sabres fan Tim from South Buffalo. "I've seen a lot of people on Twitter saying that it's too soon, stuff like that, but I don't think so. He's been gone for a while, and I think he's finally getting his due. So it's well earned, well deserved."

"I think it's about damn time. It should have happened a couple years ago," added Sabres fan Alexa from Grand Island. "I'm just so excited for him, I am so excited for tonight, and I can't wait to see what happens."

"I feel like this is the most excited Sabres fans have been in, what, the last 15 years?," Sabres fan Justin from Chili said. "I remember growing up, I'm gonna be the guy with tears in my eyes in the stands looking down on Ryan Miller, and potentially all the other guys that are here [Thursday]. It's bringing back memories of how good this team was, where the potential has to go, and where these guys now can end up and be eventually."

As Sabres fans geared up for, what was anticipating to being, a memorable night honoring a franchise icon, Miller was making his return to a city he called home for several years.

"Just really proud and happy to be back in Buffalo," said Miller during an interview with WBEN before Thursday's festivities. "Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out the right words. Hopefully I get them out, but it meant a lot to me to be a Buffalo Sabre. I had a lot of fun playing with a lot of great players here, and I really see myself as a Sabre. So it's a great honor."

During his ceremony on Thursday, Miller made mention of his first time visiting Buffalo after signing with the Sabres in 2002. As he recalls, he said he remembers looking up to the rafters and having the fantasy of doing just enough to join the likes of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert, Rick Martin and Tim Horton as having their numbers retired by the team.

Since then, the Sabres have added three more players to the rafters - Danny Gare, Pat LaFontaine and Dominik Hasek - along with longtime play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret.

Looking back on that moment and taking the time now to reflect on seeing his No. 30 alongside some of the franchise greats, it was a bit of a surreal feeling for Miller, in a way.

"Certainly when you grow up playing and you're fortunate to have a hockey career, it's something that, for me, was always kind of secondary thinking about what the legacy was going to be. I want to compete, and I wanted to win games," Miller said. "That was the fun part about being with boys, and building up into something special. So to have a chance to look back and know that my time in Buffalo was impactful and people appreciated it, it really means a lot to me."

When looking back on his career as a whole, Miller feels the one thing that stood out to him was how long he was able to play at the NHL level, while being competitive enough to stick around as long as he did.

"I got to play so many hockey games, and that was the fun part for me. I really had a blessed life in that regard," he said. "So enjoying it, for sure, and having fun celebrating with a lot of friends and family."

Miller managed to dress in 796 career NHL games (18th all-time), winning 391 of those contests (14th all-time) and making him the winningest American-born goalie in NHL history.

Here's a look at where he ranks all-time in some of the other goaltending categories in NHL history:

- 12th all-time in saves (21,665)
- Tied for 28th all-time in save percentage (.914)
- Tied for 36th all-time in shutouts (44)
- 18th all-time in time on ice (46,145:35)
- Tied for third all-time in shootout games played (101)
- Third all-time in shootout wins (60)
- 10th all-time in shootout save percentage (.709) in at least 50 appearances

Miller has often spoken about how special his time was in Buffalo and starting his career in the NHL with the Sabres. He feels Buffalo and Western New York was a place where he was able to grow up and mold his life path.

"I think everyone in their life has a point where they just kind of stand on their own. I was fortunate to go to college in my hometown, so there's a lot of support built in there. When I turned pro, I had to make my own way, make my own friendships, connections, inroads in a place that I didn't know that many people," Miller explained. "It came to be a place where everyone was really welcoming and inviting, and excited about hockey. All those things kind of helped my relationship and my excitement about the city. I always think back on my time here, and it really is about the people and the connections. It was a lot of fun."

Along the way, several memories were made while in Buffalo. Off the ice, it was his time spent serving as an ambassador for the community, especially with his commitment through his Steadfast Foundation and his support of the Courage of Carly Fund at Roswell Park. Along with his Vezina Trophy win following the 2009-10 season, Miller earned recognition as the recipient of the NHL Foundation Player Award.

While the list of memories on the ice was too long to recount in a short period of time, Miller says it was the runs Buffalo made in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons that stick out to him, in particular. Not only was it a thrilling experience for him with the community rallying behind the team, but it was also fun with the group building something special in Buffalo.

"Building confidence together and knowing that we were a good team. Those are the good memories," Miller said. "I think we put a lot of time into building our own game as a group, and we gained confidence. It was fun that we could feel like we were stepping on the ice and doing something that we built together. Those are the ones that I really like. Looking back, it was just about a feeling with the group."

As for a number of Sabres fans, they, too, have a long list of memories that are too many to count off the top of their heads.

"I would say probably the '06-07 run we had, he was just fantastic," Tim said. "I don't recall him ever having a bad game. Even in the 2-1 win against the [New York] Rangers, he was just spectacular. I think he's the reason we won that game. That's probably my best memory of him."

"I don't know if it's Ryan Miller, himself, but it's the [Rick] Jeanneret calls that come from Ryan Miller. The saves that he made where you're in the other room, you're running down to the bathroom because you're trying to catch a break and all-of-a-sudden, you hear Jeanneret go, 'Oh, what a save by Miller!' And you're running back to just catch the replay. It's those moments that are gonna stick with me," Justin recalled.

It wasn't just his on-ice moments with the Sabres that were memorable to some fans. It was also Miller being able to represent Buffalo at a pair of Winter Olympic Games playing for the United States.

"It was just the sheer fact of him going to the Olympics. That was so exciting for all of us, because we were like, 'Holy crap, that's our guy,'" Alexa said. "There's so many moments that were just incredible. I can't even think of one."

While many fans growing up watching the Sabres have their own memories with how they fell in love with the team and the game, they also connect with specific players that became faces of the franchise. For some, it was Perreault and "The French Connection". For others, it was Dominik Hasek in the 1990s and early 2000s.

However, a number of Sabres fans will look back fondly of the mid-2000s and early 2010s teams and always pinpoint those years with watching Miller and the dominance he showed as a staple of the franchise in Buffalo.

"He was like our generation's Dominik Hasek. He was our goalie when we were growing up," said Sabres fan Anthony from Lancaster. "Everybody talks about 'The Dominator', but we talk about Ryan Miller."

"When I was a kid growing up, he was it. Hasek was on his way out, and Miller was on his way in," added Tim.

"He just brings that 'face of the franchise' to a new level," said Sabres fan Jordan, Justin's brother from Chili. "He was just a standout [player] for so many years, and we were just incredibly lucky to have him here in Buffalo."

Miller is no stranger to knowing how passionate Sabres fans are about their team. While he may not live in Buffalo anymore, he says him and his family always find ways of running into people from the Western New York region.

"It's just kind of funny, wherever you're at. We did have some good runs, and people did have a lot of excitement surrounding our teams. I do still see a lot of people," Miller said. "I think the young kids probably don't know, obviously, I've been gone a little bit now, but it certainly isn't a good chunk of the people I run into. They talk about being at the games, and their family had season tickets and how much the teams meant to them. So it's always been something that I kind of expect when I'm out-and-about in the world. Somebody from Buffalo is gonna pop by."

During Thursday night's ceremony, a number of former Sabres players who played with Miller in Buffalo made the special trip to support and celebrate their former goaltender. This included the likes of Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Derek Roy, Henrik Tallinder, Tim Connolly, J.P. Dumont, Paul Gaustad and several others.

Miller felt the love from his former teammates who came back to Buffalo for the special occasion, as he gleamed with excitement speaking of some of the guys that were returning to the city on Thursday.

"The fact that so many guys wanted to get back, I appreciate that. But also, I think they really want to come back and see all the boys, they want to come back to the city. I think that's a big part of playing in Buffalo," he said. "The boys want to come back, they want to be a part of that group again, and it just shows you how connected we all were."

While Miller's career numbers in the NHL certainly were respectable, the accolades for the East Lansing, Michigan native make him a unique player in hockey history. Not only does he stand alone as the most winningest American-born player in league history, but he is the only goalie in hockey to be named a top player at five different levels of the game:

- Junior (NAHL MVP with the Soo Indians)
- College (Hobey Baker Award winner at Michigan State University)
- Minors (Baz Bastien Memorial Award winner as best goalie with the Rochester Americans)
- NHL (Vezina Trophy winner as best goalie with the Sabres)
- International (MVP and best goalie of 2010 Winter Olympics)

In addition, during his illustrious career, Miller was grouped together with a number of other netminders that will likely, if not, have already been named to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There could be an argument made that one day, maybe several years after the fact, that Miller could be enshrined in hockey lore with an invitation to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Many Sabres fans will certainly agree with any potential argument that supports that case for Miller.

"I think even being one of the best USA-born goaltenders, [he has the] most wins as a goaltender in the U.S. That in and of itself shows the longevity, and how hard it is at the professional level to be good for so long," Justin said. "He's proven it time-and-time again. If anyone deserves it, it's Ryan Miller."

"He's going to be probably the best American-born goalie ever. Somebody might come up ahead of him, we'll see, but as for right now, I think that's going to stand for a very long time," Tim stated. "His numbers aren't extravagant, but he was so, so good for so long that I don't think anybody's gonna surpass him."

"He deserves it all. He deserves that recognition, and I feel like the whole NHL should start recognizing people who were on the Sabres," added Alexa. "He was a Sabre first, he's a Sabre forever. He deserves all the recognition nationwide."

As for Miller, he feels if it is meant to be to get that call from Toronto, then he would be honored to be recognized as a Hockey Hall-of-Famer. However, it's not something that he will be thinking about anytime soon.

"It comes down to just so many other people's opinions," Miller said. "If I do receive a call, like this call I got from Buffalo or with USA Hockey, you get that call and you appreciate it, but the Hockey Hall of Fame is not something you really can advocate for. It's other people's opinion about the legacy you're able to leave. So I'm just happy with what I was able to do, personally. I think when you look back on a career and how many different ways it can go, I feel very fortunate and lucky I was able to have such a long career, and I had a lot of fun doing it. That was the important part to me."

Hear more of our conversation with Miller available in the player below:

Featured Image Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports