It was the fifth round of the 1999 NHL Draft. Jim Benning was the director of amateur scouting for the Buffalo Sabres, who had pick No. 138 in the fifth round. Still on the board: a skinny kid from Michigan State University named Ryan Miller.
Benning was impressed with the young goalie, and pitched the pick to the Sabres braintrust seated at the table. It came to his attention that Mike Luit, former NHL goalie and Miller’s agent, was seated in the stands at FleetCenter in Boston.
“Back then, it wasn’t like two minutes to the next pick,” recalled Benning. “So I went up in the stands and I asked Mike, ‘Is this the time to take Ryan in the draft?’ And he said, ‘Yup, this is Miller Time.’”
Miller would go on to play 559 games in the NHL with the Sabres and briefly with the St. Louis Blues, winning 294 of them. He’s win the 2010 Vezina Trophy and rose to stardom as the goalie for the U.S. men’s hockey team in the Vancouver Games, coming within a goal of gold.
Funny how hockey works sometimes. Not only did Miller sign on to play in Vancouver, but he signed with the man who drafted him.
“I have a comfort level with him, for sure,” said Benning, who signed Miller to a 3-year, $18-million contract on Tuesday.
“He looks calm right now and stuff, but when he puts on the gear, he’s a fierce competitor. He’s intense. And he wants to win. That’s the type of player we want in the organization going forward,” he said.
Miller had some options, but zeroed in on the Canucks as free agency opened.
“As a player, you want to be with a team that wants you, and is also aligned with the way you think and the way you play. What I heard from management was great,” he said.
Eddie Lack was the starter for the Canucks last season, and actually posted better even strength numbers than Miller did last season. But Miller and Benning both believe there won’t be an issue with Miller coming in as the starter and Lack continuing to incubate as the backup. Benning said it was the plan Buffalo had for Marty Biron while he was playing behind Dominik Hasek and had for Tuukka Rask in Boston when Tim Thomas was there.
Vancouver is a place where Miller can start. It’s also a place in the Western Conference, which was his preference as he and his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, live in Los Angeles during the offseason.
“It wasn’t going to be make or break. It was a bonus,” he said.
“She’s very happy with the way things worked out, but honestly it’s just a bonus to be near here. It’s a great city.”
It’s a city where Miller experienced some of his greatest highs and his lowest low as a professional; where he saw Roberto Luongo win gold while he settled for silver. And now, he’s got Luongo’s old job.
“This is a great city for hockey," said Miller. "We’re very excited to be here.”