Putting Things in Perspective

Ryan Miller has a made a career of putting smiles on people’s faces

By Brian Duff – Sabres TV Host

I received an unexpected text message from a friend at a time when the Sabres’ season had just come to an end, and while Ryan Miller was conducting a post-game interview with us from the ice after delivering a first-star performance on Fan Appreciation Night. It also happened to be his 500th career NHL game.

April 26, 2013 – 10:04 p.m.: “Cam is sad. She was close with Ryan through Carly’s Club. Looking like he will be leaving. He was HUGE when she was REALLY sick. And we are grateful for him.”

Talk about putting things into perspective. It’s something we all need to do from time to time.

That night was a great reminder of how inexplicably lives from anywhere can become intertwined over time. How sometimes we may start speaking about people in the past tense even though they are still right there in front of us. It also showed us how Miller’s career can lend us many examples of how to conduct one’s self during trying and uncertain times.

Life is much more than hockey…It’s a lot about the connections you make and the people you can affect in a positive way. I like to think that with the work that we are able to do that we can make some kind of a difference for the kids, for the families, and help them through a tough time.

For those who don’t know the story of Carly’s Club, and ultimately Ryan’s connection to it, here is an abbreviated version from their website.

“On October 19, 1999, just a few weeks after complaining of headaches, 8-year-old Carly Collard Cottone was diagnosed with medulloblastoma – an aggressive form of brain cancer. Three days later, the tumor was removed. Carly began radiation treatment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute soon after.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time Carly was touched by cancer. She lost both of her biological parents–Tony and Judie Cottone–to cancer during the first seven years of her life. But Carly faced her own battle with cancer with amazing courage and optimism.

Throughout her fight, Carly was very appreciative of the support she received from her family members and friends. As a way of showing her appreciation, she decided early on in her treatment that she wanted to help other kids who were also battling cancer. Thus, Carly’s Club was born. With the love and support of her adoptive parents, Chuck and Carole Ann Collard, Carly was able to fulfill her dream of helping other families touched by the disease.

Sadly, Carly lost her hard-fought struggle with the disease in August of 2002. Little did she know the positive impact that Carly’s Club would have on the lives of the thousands of children diagnosed with cancer each year.”

Some 300 miles away and also in the fall of 1999, Ryan Miller, like his cousins Kelly, Kip, and Kevin did so before and younger brother Drew has done since, embarked on a collegiate hockey career at Michigan State. Having been drafted by the Sabres in the 5th round that summer, it was there in East Lansing, that he not only honed his playing ability to be able to pursue a professional career, but also his skill set as a meaningful member of society.

“In college we always had great involvement in the community and started doing hospital visits and stuff,” Miller said recently. “I just tried to carry it forward here.”

Just a month after Carly passed away, Ryan turned pro and began his career in Rochester. And while Ryan never met the girl behind the Club, the two became more synonymous with one another as his path reached Buffalo.

“I think at the time I arrived, J-P Dumont was involved with Carly’s Club. So when J-P kind of cycled out, it just fell in line with my cousin who had gotten sick, and so we started working with them,” said Miller.

Ryan started his first full season with the Sabres in 2005. This was also the year his 16-year old cousin Matt Schoals was diagnosed with leukemia. It prompted the creation of Miller’s Steadfast Foundation, which soon became linked with Carly’s Club.

“Bringing it here, as it hit a little bit closer to our family, we just got more and more involved, starting with doing small fundraising stuff and then it grew to sponsoring a lot of their programs,” recalls Miller. “On top of that, I would just make sure every year to get the kids to the game. And if I got a pay raise the kids came to a little bit bigger situation. So for the last six or seven years they’ve had a suite for every game.”

While Miller’s popularity ascended rapidly in Buffalo, and the club made consecutive runs to the Eastern Conference Final, it was in the early stages of the season that followed their Presidents’ Trophy win when Matt Schoals passed away at the age of 18. On that – October 11, 2007 – Miller posted a shutout versus Atlanta.

Tragedy and triumph. Negative and positive. Loss and a win.

The wheels of The Steadfast Foundation were already in motion prior to Matt’s passing, but nothing could slow down its momentum in the days that followed and through today. Miller’s locally famous “Catwalk for Charity” events have been an integral part of the success of the Foundation, and in turn, the impact that it has had on kids with cancer in this community.

“It wasn’t about finding a cure or finding medicine,” Miller explained when speaking about Steadfast. “It was about healing the spirit, and that was something that was important to my family. My parents have done a great job as dad (Dean) runs the foundation and my mom (Teresa) has been heavily involved, always representing us well when she’s here.”

Now, not only do kids and families from Carly’s Club attend every Sabres game, they also can attend any event that comes through the doors at First Niagara Center – including the Bon Jovi concert on February 24, 2013.

Ryan and Cloey Smith

Bon Jovi concert + watching the show with Ryan Miller + tickets in the suite = best.day.ever

Cloey Smith (left, with Ryan) was diagnosed with cancer in April of 2008 and got to know Ryan Miller soon after.

“She absolutely adored Ryan,” recalls Carly’s Club Coordinator Robin Hace. “He was her favorite player and just a great friend. Ryan was second only to one thing…Bon Jovi. She was desperate to go to that concert in February. Turned out, Ryan made it one of the most memorable nights of her life.”

Miller made special note of that evening when we spoke with him, recalling how his mom was dancing around and making this 12-year old girl laugh. He was saddened by the news that followed shortly thereafter.

“After her long and courageous battle with cancer, Cloey, earned her angel wings (as we like to put it) on March 30 – a little over a month after the concert,” said Hace. “Cloey, and her mom, Julie Root, were so grateful to have that opportunity and it wouldn’t have been possible without him. Ryan gave Cloey the chance to just be a kid and enjoy her two favorite things, and Ryan gave Julie a memory of her child that she will cherish forever.”

Even in a lockout compressed schedule, when free time was limited and rest was paramount, Miller found time to keep his life and his priorities balanced.

“Ryan is always up at the hospital visiting patients when time allows,” according to Chuck Collard, proud supporter of Carly’s Club. “He is a deeply caring person. Someone who is first class, and who has positively impacted every family he has met. If he leaves this community, there will be a big void.”

Sincere is the word used often by Sabres Community Relations Director Rich Jureller when describing Miller. “He has a great ability to be present and give his full attention to someone or something regardless of what is going on with the team or the season at that time. And I think he does that because it is that important to him. He sincerely wants to help others and to give-back.”

Genuine, motivated, analytical, emotional, detail-oriented, introspective and thoughtful also came to light when canvassing others about Miller. Not to mention selfless, passionate and a mentor. So too did words like: misunderstood, misconstrued, over-analyzed, and polarizing. (Or worse if you listen to talk radio or engage in social media)

Ah, the quest for balance.

Like most professional athletes, Miller has certainly found over his career that no matter what you do on or off the playing surface, you are often judged only on your most recent results.

Factor in age, contractual status, the direction of the team moving forward, and the ability for an athlete to maintain the proper mindset to perform becomes all the more fascinating.

This helps to steer us back towards the final night of the regular season.

Many viewed the game as potentially (if not likely) his last as a Sabre, based on a number of factors. It was also a milestone night for Miller, his 500th NHL game – all of them with Buffalo. Indeed, a rare occurrence for a goaltender.

And amidst the media storm of speculation, it was his preparation, focus and performance in a shootout win that should not be overlooked.

I caught a rare glimpse of Miller at about 10 a.m. – one day prior to the season finale. No one was in the arena bowl. No one was on the ice except for Miller. In his crease. Alone with his thoughts.

“Sometimes you’ve just gotta go to church,” Miller chuckled when recounting that moment. “I find that’s a situation where some people find comfort and that’s what I do. I just need a moment to myself, no other guys skating around, no fans around…just quiet and I can reflect on some stuff. I needed to get my head in a good place to be able to enjoy today and play the kind of game I wanted to play.”

The kind of game he was trying to avoid happened one week earlier. Four goals allowed on 14 shots, sarcastic cheers from the “home” crowd, and an infamous waving of the glove to acknowledge he had heard them. All part of an 8-4 loss to the New York Rangers, that had people wondering if that would end up being Miller’s final game in Buffalo.

Of course it wouldn’t be. One needed only to review his credentials and the team record book to know that. No one has played more, or won more at his position wearing Sabres colors.

April 26, 2013 – 7:08 p.m.: As the puck was about to be dropped, the club saluted co-winners of the 7th Man Award by bringing Carol and Edwin Stenzel onto the ice. The couple has been married 55 years, owned season tickets since 1971, and were honored as the best and most passionate fans of the season.

Fast forward through 65 minutes of play and a 2-1 shootout win. The time had come for the annual tradition of players giving the jerseys off their backs to selected lucky fans.

Miller’s jersey went to the Stenzel’s, and included a kiss on the cheek from Carol and a lengthy conversation. And when he joined us moments later for an interview, there was Miller, talking about Ed and Carol by name as if he’d known them forever.

“It makes me feel good being able to see those kind of people, especially before the game and they come out and be saluted by the crowd. It kind of reminds you how everything is supposed to be and it helps us play. She was really sweet before the game and I knew I better step up for Carol!”

How many athletes would even remember their names in that moment?

His perspective on the night, his career to date, and perhaps his future, was also delivered succinctly.

“You know, this is one of those checkpoints, kind of a milestone where you can take the time to reflect and maybe reflect a little longer just because we’re playing our final game of the season here. I’m just trying to enjoy it and put it in a good place before having to regroup for next year.”

And that takes me back to the text message that prompted this story.

It came from Walter Geising, whose daughter Cameryn was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two. During her 30 months of treatment, the family became involved with Carly’s Club, and Ryan immediately took to Cam, and she immediately made him her first “favorite player”.

The Geising’s believe that Ryan’s motivation helped her get through the most difficult time of her life.

camp good days billboardCam is now eight years old, and in her fifth year of playing hockey. Maybe you’ve seen her blond hair and big smile on the Camp Good Days billboard around town?

I’m sure that Miller has noticed it. Attention to detail is definitely one of his strong suits.

“Life is much more than hockey,” he said. “It’s a lot about the connections you make and the people you can affect in a positive way. I like to think that with the work that we are able to do that we can make some kind of a difference for the kids, for the families, and help them through a tough time. For us it’s rewarding. It gives you perspective and keeps you balanced as a person and it’s definitely made me feel good about being an athlete in this city. There is a certain amount of connection that you need to feel, I think, to do the job well here. So it’s a good way to do that.”

Ryan Miller was honored with the NHL Foundation Player award in 2010, for applying the core values of hockey – commitment, perseverance, and teamwork – to enrich the lives of people in his community.

As he has stated in the past, his Steadfast Foundation uses an Irish Oak Tree as it’s symbol – to represent strength and stability, and the deep roots of family.

Not knowing what the future holds, it’s hard to imagine that Miller will ever plant more meaningful, far reaching roots during his NHL career than what he has here in Buffalo.