TORONTO — Mitchell Miller’s long, jagged shadow stretched across the Bruins dressing room late Saturday morning, with members of the club’s leadership core echoing some of the bewilderment that many Black and Gold fans expressed in the immediate wake of the troubled Miller signing a three-year deal with the club on Friday.
The clear message: Miller won’t be welcomed unless he proves he is of worthy character, and he’ll be shown the door promptly if doesn’t live up to standards and expectations cultivated over the last 15 years.
Sounds like it’s going to be one tough room to work for Miller — if he’s ever allowed a foot in the door.
“It’s a really hard topic,” said veteran forward Nick Foligno, once the captain of the Blue Jackets. “I think first and foremost, the organization is not going to do something that is going to jeopardize [the culture]. But in saying that, it’s not something anyone in this room stands for. The culture we’ve built, and these guys built before I got here, is one of inclusion and I think it goes against that.”
The controversial signing took a bizarre twist Saturday when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told The Athletic that Miller has not been cleared to play in the league.
It’s possible, said Bettman, that Miller, 20, never will be cleared, a point Bettman said he told Bruins president Cam Neely subsequent to the Bruins announcing the signing in a Friday afternoon news dump.
The Bruins, Bettman told The Athletic, “understand that now.”
Foligno noted that he understood Miller was age 14 when he committed his transgressions, which included brutal hazing episodes.
“But it’s hard for us to swallow, “added Foligno, “because we take a lot of pride in here in the way we act, the way we carry ourselves, what it is to be a Bruin.”
Foligno’s comments came hours before the 10-1-0 Bruins, off to the hottest start in team history, faced the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena in the first matchup this season between the Original Six clubs.
Miller became a pariah in the hockey community soon after the Arizona Coyotes made him the 111th pick in the 2020 draft. Local reporting found that Miller years earlier in Ohio joined in the disgusting, persistent hazing of a Black classmate who had developmental disabilities. Miller, then 14, pleaded guilty to one count of assault and one count of violation of the Ohio Safe Schools Act. Per the reporting at the time, Miller coerced the victim, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, into licking a candy push pop plucked from a urinal.
Early Friday afternoon, in classic news dump style, the Bruins revealed that they signed Miller to a three-year, entry level contract, one that guarantees the him more than $500,000 across the next three years regardless of whether he makes the varsity roster.
At the NHL level, the deal carries an $862,000 cap hit, according to capfriendly.com.
Miller reported Friday to the AHL Providence Bruins, with general manager Don Sweeney making it clear that the 5-foot-10-inch, 190-pound defenseman will need to train for some time before he is added to a game roster anywhere in the organization. It was clear from Sweeney’s remarks that there is no guarantee that Miller, last season’s defenseman of the year and player of the year in the USHL, ever will make the Boston roster.
Yet the signing equally made clear that the Bruins detect real upside in Miller, who collected a prolific 39-44—83 line last season with the USHL Tri-City Storm.
A source familiar with what he said was a monthlong negotiation of Miller’s contract said Saturday that five NHL clubs also had offers on the table for the defenseman’s services. If true, then presumably those clubs similarly weren’t aware of Bettman’s posture toward Miller being cleared to play in the 32-team league.
Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron, who helped curate the club’s culture in recent years, dating to Zdeno Chara’s long tenure as captain, said he met with the entire team Saturday morning to discuss Miller’s signing.
“I’d like to keep that, I mean, what I said is what I said, right?” said Bergeron, asked by a Globe reporter what he told the group.
The comments to teammates, Bergeron said, echoed what he said moments before in a scrum with reporters at his locker.
“I was asked by Don, close to a week ago, he asked for my opinion,” about the signing, said Bergeron. “I had my concerns. I shared my opinion. In a way, I think I was not necessarily agreeing with it — to be honest with you, I think the culture that we’ve built here goes against that type of behavior. I think we are a team built on character and with character individuals. What he did, obviously is unacceptable. We don’t stand by that.”
Inclusion, diversity and respect are the pillars of the culture inside the dressing room, added the 37-year-old Bergeron.
“Those are the key words and core values that we have,” he added. “And we expect the guys who wear this jersey to be high-character people with integrity and respect — that’s how they should be acting.”
Bergeron said he would want evidence of “growth and change” from Miller before he entered the room.
“Truthfully, if it’s the same 14-year-old that would be walking into this locker room,” mused Bergeron, “he wouldn’t be accepted and wanted and welcomed, to be honest with you.”
Asked if Miller’s arrival could undermine the culture, or act as a rock through the window, Bergeron added, “Our culture isn’t going to change. I think our culture is what it is, something that I am proud of, something that we’ve worked hard for and we don’t need to change that. The changes are from the individual himself.”
Adding maturity, offered Brad Marchand, will take lengthy time and effort on Mitchell’s behalf.
A vocal segment of the Bruins fandom made their disgust for the deal known on social media. Many questioned the timing, specifically how it could upset the momentum of a team off to a torrid start in the new season.
“With a situation like this, I’m not sure there is ever good timing,” said Bergeron. “If they feel like it’s the time, then it’s the time. Again, I think it’s a long process for this kid to make amends, show that he’s learned and come a long way. That process has to start at some point — I guess it’s now.”
Does the signing place a burden on Marchand, Bergeron, and other members of the room?
After a long pause, Marchand said, “I guess how I’d answer that is, again, if a kid’s going to be part of this room, we have a standard that we hold our teammates to to be in this room, and if we don’t feel like he’s there, then he will not be here. Like anybody, if there’s a guy that comes in and he’s not fitting in, he’s gone. We’ve shown that year after year. I understand where it all comes from, but again, if he ever makes it here, it will be because he’s shown that he’s learned and come the distance he needs to — a lot comes with this, a lot of backlash and media attention that the team’s going through.
“Like I said, he’s got a lot of work to do. It’s a second chance he’s been gifted and he’ll have to show that he’s earned it. He’s got a long, long road ahead of him.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.