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The Reluctant Superstar



Illustration by Josh Flanigan

Ryan Miller is the face of the Buffalo Sabres. Some might even say the goaltender is the face of Buffalo, period.

I can imagine him appreciating the irony of the sentiment, that a man who wears a mask for a living, who tends to shy away from the public spotlight except for when his team or charity calls for it, could be the face of anything. Maybe it’s because his success at the NHL level was never guaranteed—he was drafted in the fifth round—but the recent Olympic Silver Medalist is quick to acknowledge that being a professional athlete entails fulfilling a certain set of obligations. “I have to carry myself a certain way [in] interviews and represent a team, and I don’t think that’s the way I handle myself with my friends and family,” he tells me during a phone conversation in July.

When duty compels him, Miller can be gracious with the media. Over the summer—a very, very busy one for Terry Pegula’s franchise—he was compelled to speak out in defense of Tim Connolly after the Toronto Sun published an article containing disparaging comments about his friend and former teammate. I have a feeling duty is also what compels Miller to call me from L.A. so he can talk to me about the new programs that his charity, the Steadfast Foundation, has been funding recently as part of its evolving, ever-expanding mission to make life easier for young cancer patients and their families.

Miller spends the offseason nowadays in L.A. with his new wife, actress Noureen DeWulf. Although the West Coast allows the avid photographer to escape from having to reside in a hockey-mad town all year, Miller says he has made peace with the fact that he can never go back to living anonymously again, even if he never fully understands how a quiet kid from Michigan ended up being on the minds of so many strangers. “It’s a little bit surreal to me to have people know so much about me from an outside perspective and feel so close to me without ever having talked to me,” he says. “That’s a little bit different for me. Because I’m kind of a quiet person until you get to know me.”

Miller tells me he’s heard every story that’s ever been circulated about him, almost all of which are exaggerations of the truth. But he does admit that if you take the flattering stories and the embarrassing ones and split the difference, you will arrive at a fair approximation of who he really is. Nevertheless, he guards the details of his private life as best as he can. For example, when I try to get him to talk about how he spends his time away from the rink, he avoids specifics, saying only, “I try to insulate myself. I go to places where people are familiar with me, and they treat me like ‘Ryan’ instead of ‘Miller, number 30.’ I go to restaurants I’m comfortable with. I go to stores I’m comfortable with.”

In spite of his elusiveness—or maybe because of it—just about everyone has an opinion on Miller. Mike Schopp, co-host of Schopp and the Bulldog, WGR’s flagship call-in talk show, says this is part of the reason they can spend so many afternoons talking about him. He’s clutch or he’s soft. He’s accountable or he’s beyond reproach. He’s too reserved or he’s too emotional. Sometimes, the most vocal participants in the Miller debate are not really debating Miller the goalie so much as Miller the persona. Schopp tells me as much: “I mean, he seems very smart and analytical, and he’s not always cuddly in the room, right? I think a certain faction of the fanbase doesn’t get behind guys like that.”

Miller incites the opposite response, too. On the ice, he espouses a style that discourages desperation and reduces the chance for the “big save.” The sea of Miller sweaters in the stands and the intensity of ovations he receives at the arena confirm his unrivaled popularity. It’s possible that, for a lot of fans, Miller supplies an antidote to the ugliness of many of today’s modern athletes.

Miller knows that the stakes of a public gaffe are higher for him than with other players because, for almost his entire career, he has represented not just his team, but his charity as well. Miller’s Steadfast Foundation, which he cofounded six years ago with his father Dean, raises money for Carly’s Club, the pediatric division of Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Carly’s Club uses the money it receives from Steadfast to fund programs that improve the wellbeing of children who live with cancer, especially leukemia. “We’re trying to provide a positive environment and complement the medicine that’s being administered,” Miller says, summing up the Steadfast mission. This approach, to improve what Miller calls “the psychosocial elements of treating the disease,” is informed by his experience in watching his cousin Matt Schoals succumb to leukemia due to complications from a bone marrow transplant. Schoals was eighteen years old. “We had to watch as my cousin went through treatment and quarantine—long stretches in the hospital,” Miller says. “What’s amazing is, these kids have great attitudes. They have a strong spirit. We’re just there to make sure that we can help sustain that when it’s going to get really tough on them.”

Miller says Steadfast has begun to broaden its scope by funding psychosocial and diversionary programs for teens. He tells me he is especially proud of an intervention assistance program that has introduced webcams and computers to Carly’s Club so teens can keep in touch with classmates and experience “the next best thing to having people visit.”

Steadfast has been able to jumpstart many of these new programs by raising money through partnerships with local companies. Without question, though, the greatest moneymaker for the Foundation remains its annual fundraiser, the Catwalk for Charity. Part fashion show, part costume party, the Catwalk showcases Miller’s teammates as runway models, and brings together a cross section of civic activists, fans, and the Queen City’s most influential movers and shakers. (The sixth annual Catwalk, this year titled “Wrangling for a Cause,” features a country theme, and will take place at the Town Ballroom on Sunday, December 4.)

Miller is not Buffalo’s first athlete célèbre to take advantage of his fame to mobilize the local community behind a cause, but he has distinguished himself from other public figures by using the story of his family’s grief to openly promote the cause. At the time Schoals died, Steadfast had been around for about a year. Miller makes it sound like the early days of Steadfast provided a kind of group therapy for his entire family. “It became something where we could have an outlet, and we could feel like we were doing something that could help other families, and could give us peace of mind,” he says. Miller’s father Dean, who is Steadfast’s director and manages the Foundation’s relationships with Roswell Park and Carly’s Club, has been involved from the get-go, but Miller says his father “really jumped into” the business side of things after Schoal’s death. “He talks about how [Steadfast] has helped him move on and find some good after Matt passed,” Miller says. Dean Miller agrees and says that Steadfast was hatched from a father and son’s joint “desire to help those suffering a similar fate.”

Whenever a public figure pursues a noble cause, the way Miller does with Steadfast, one of the unintended consequences of the pursuit is that the critical distance between that figure and the media shrinks. Several members of the local sports media told me off the record that they admire Miller’s charity work, and that this makes it harder, at least on a subconscious level, to criticize the guy for letting in the occasional bad goal. Miller, of course, doesn’t feel the media has given him a pass. If anything, he says the opposite, that they exaggerate their criticisms in order to manufacture controversy. “They get paid to stir something up, and they get paid to write something,” Miller says. “It just reinforces to me, when they get locked on something, that they don’t know enough about it, and I shouldn’t worry about what they have to say.”

Buffalo News sports columnist Jerry Sullivan says Miller should know better than to think that some writers conspire against players for personal gain. Sullivan is convinced that Miller has been given more than a fair shake by the Buffalo hockey media. “I think he has been treated more than well, and [as a result]... he doesn’t understand what it’s like to play in other towns,” Sullivan says, adding, “I would like him to have experienced what it’s like to play in Toronto. Win the Vezina [Trophy for best goaltender], nearly win a gold medal, come back, and be average for a season. How would he have been treated in a real, hard-hitting, critical hockey market?” Sullivan and Miller have clashed publicly a few times over the years, with the most recent dust-up occurring last February after a 7-6 overtime loss at home to the New York Islanders in which both men traded verbal jabs with each other—Miller accused Sullivan of hardly ever showing up for the postgames, and Sullivan accused Miller of being thinskinned. Sullivan, who says he doesn’t “relish those situations,” understands why Miller lost his cool on this particular night. It was his thirty-first consecutive game, and he had just given up seven goals, including the overtime winner. The pressure had to be released at some point.

Sullivan says Miller can be “earnest and sincere,” almost to a fault. “He tries to say and do the right thing all the time,” he says. “He has a great sense of fairness and I think that’s why he clashes with the media sometimes, because he is kind of judging us at times too, whether we’re fair, and, hey, I can handle that.” Although this character trait in Miller—whether we call it his commitment to fairness, or his sincerity, or something altogether different— can sometimes get him into trouble with some of the more combative members of the hockey media, Miller’s sincerity is also his greatest asset as a public advocate. It assures a purity of purpose. Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Miller if his work with Steadfast has changed how he looks at his job. I brace myself for the modern-day athlete’s response, about how “I get to play a game for a living, and the charity taught me what’s really important in life.” That sort of thing. But instead of dismissing his job as the trifling diversion of boys, Miller actually admits that an essential part of what he enjoys about his charity work is that it imbues his job with significance, steering him into moments of self-assessment. He says, “I feel like I’ve worked hard to get to where I’m at, but there’s times, you know—How do I really deserve to be here?” In Miller’s eyes, the answer doesn’t matter so much. The fact that he is asking the question is what’s important. 

 

 

 

James Walkowiak’s lifelong love of hockey began with the pickup games he played as a kid on the snow-swept streets of Cheektowaga.

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