SoCal’s Kevan Miller has made himself at home on ice
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Three decades after Wayne Gretzky’s arrival fueled Disney-like dreams that the ice-bound game could flourish in the sunshine, the frozen road to the NHL remains long and slippery for those who start in California. Just ask Kevan Miller.
Miller, who grew up in Kings country (Santa Clarita), trekked alone some 2,900 miles as a 16-year-old, from Canyon High to Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., to have a go of it. A shock it was for the warm-blooded teenager, even though he had set his sights on a cold-weather career.
“There were times it would be negative-20 out, or it was dumping snow,” he said. “They would tell us, ‘You can’t go outside without a buddy.’ You’re in the woods, in the Berkshires. You fall and hit your head . . . ”
So he learned early the importance of a reliable defense partner. That’s exactly what Miller has become for the Bruins, against the odds.
“He can play against anybody,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He can play against speed. He can play against size.”
The club’s annual trip to SoCal, which began Friday against the Ducks and continues Saturday at Los Angeles, is always a chance for Miller to see friends and family — both his parents and his in-laws still live here — and to appreciate how far he’s come. At 31, Miller is an everyday defenseman for Boston, three years into a four-year, $10 million deal he signed in 2016.
According to QuantHockey.com, a dozen active NHL players were born in California, and 45 have played in the league. A Californian has been taken in every draft since 1998, per NHL.com data, a total of 55 in that span.
Miller was not one of them. He finished his four-year career at Vermont in 2011, and signed an amateur tryout with AHL Providence. The six-game stint led to a camp invitation, and a two-way contract that October. He played 154 games in the AHL before he finally made his NHL debut at age 26, in November 2013.
Among current Bruins, only offseason signee Chris Wagner (239 games) has spent more time in the AHL than Miller, who now ranks fifth in NHL games played among California-born players. Boston College product Brooks Orpik, born in San Francisco, is the leader with 1,012.
Though the 1988 Gretzky trade and 1993 Kings run to the Stanley Cup Final had kids picking up sticks (Miller was a street hockey-playing 5-year-old when the latter happened), and the game grew on the heels of deep playoff runs by the Ducks (Cup champs 2007), Kings (2012, ’14), and Sharks, major barriers still exist for Californians.
The state has no public rinks, according to USA Hockey, only private. Ice costs are higher than many other corners of the country. California lacks high-level junior clubs and has zero Division 1 college teams. Until upstart Arizona State began playing a full D1 schedule in 2016, the nearest top-flight college program was in Colorado.
Miller, who followed his pee-wee hockey coach’s son to Berkshire, is optimistic the future will not force others to leave.
“It’s a huge state with a lot of people, so you’d think it would catch on eventually,” he said. “I think when Wayne Gretzky came out here, hockey kind of blew up, and then there was a bit of a lull. Then the Ducks won the Cup, the Kings got really good, and San Jose’s been doing good for a long time . . . You’re seeing more kids playing out here and more kids coming all over the country. You see guys in juniors from California. It’s good for the sport.”
The closest rink to him when he was growing up happened to be the Kings’ practice facility, the since-shuttered Iceoplex in North Hills. That’s where he met Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, and his two favorite players, Rob Blake and Marty McSorley.
Makes sense he would latch onto the latter two, given his fearsome defensive game. Would it have been any different if he had taken to a wizardly scorer, say, Zigmund Palffy?
“No, I don’t think so,” Miller said. “I don’t think I have that club in my bag.”
But Miller, who has been building his skills with personal coach Adam Oates the last three years, has made leaps in his offensive game.
“We focus on skills, and hope that translates to offense,” Miller said of his work with Oates, the Hall of Fame ex-Bruin. “I haven’t scored a goal yet [0-5—5 in 31 games], so I’m waiting for that. I’m just trying to do my best to make plays. That comes with being more confident with the puck. And it comes with the coaching style. Butchy frees me up, and he’s freed other guys up. We have a little leash to make plays.”
Cassidy, who was Miller’s coach when he got to Providence, has seen significant growth.
“It’s in him to be a secondary offensive guy,” Cassidy said. “He’s not just a hard-nosed, tough, physical, shot blocker and penalty killer. I don’t know if he’s ever going to find his way onto an NHL power play, that would be great if he did, but he’s more than capable of pitching in some offense, and more than what’s out there right now, in terms of numbers. He’s making nice passes, and we’ve tried to emphasize that a little more.”
Miller has earned a rep as one of the hardest workers in the organization. One result: He has become a plus skater for his build (6 feet 2 inches, 210 pounds).
“I’d say it’s rare for [one’s skating] to improve as much as his did,” Cassidy said. “Everyone in the organization knows, it’s how he got from Providence to Boston.
“It’s not easy to work on. You start to get set in your ways, and it’s hard to have gains in that. You can have some, but you’ve been doing it the same your whole life. It takes dedication.”
Miller’s main competitor for “most fit Bruin” during preseason strength testing, Zdeno Chara, believes that Miller is “still getting better.” His usual defense partner, Matt Grzelcyk, is thankful for Miller’s attitude.
“I love how intense he is,” Grzelcyk said. “It brings my intensity up a little. He wants to be in the forwards’ faces all the time. He’s confrontational. A lot of times I’m reading off him, because he’s the one initiating.”
Californians who make it this far know no other way.
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The Bruins signed winger Lee Stempniak, 35, to an AHL tryout contract. Stempniak made the drive down I-95 and was in the Providence lineup Friday against Toronto, chipping in a goal and an assist in a 3-1 win over the Toronto Marlies.
Unsigned after his camp tryout expired, he practiced with the Bruins at home all season. The short-time Bruin (3-7—10 in 19 games in 2016) spent last season with Carolina, his 10th NHL team.
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Grzelcyk, who could rejoin the lineup Saturday in LA after a four-game respite, said his Feb. 6 pulled leg muscle happened when a New York Ranger — he doesn’t recall who — reverse-hit him in the first period. He wound up playing 22 minutes that night. “You get used to being limited,” Grzelcyk said . . . John Moore started the night with Miller . . . David Backes would be a logical scratch in LA, if call-up Karson Kuhlman (12-13—25 in 50 games with Providence) enters the lineup . . . Jaroslav Halak, after allowing one goal on 36 shots in a win over Colorado, started the first half of this SoCal back-to-back. Tuukka Rask will face the Kings on Saturday. Halak (14-9-4, 1.44, .921) faced an attack that ranked last in the league in goals per game (2.19), goals at 5-on-5 (87), shots per game (27.4) and home power-play success (11.6 percent).