"Michigan State put an emphasis on team defense, but we got out ahead with our training. The NHL talks about getting kids in early to learn about workouts and train and be ready to play the NHL season. We were way ahead of that at the college level. I actually think I was bigger then in college than I am now."
-- Ryan Miller
Or just an "MSU" chromosome in the Miller family's DNA.
"I was probably too young when I decided about Michigan State [University]," said Buffalo Sabre's goaltender Ryan Miller about continuing a family legacy by donning the green-and-white of Spartan nation from 1999-02.
"I had my heart set on it early, and luckily I had a lot of people ahead of me with cousins and family. Just watching that I had a chance to understand what it's all about."
A few ahead of him, indeed.
Miller is one of 10 members of the Miller family, including his grandfather, father, uncle, five cousins, and his younger brother, Drew of the Anaheim Ducks, who played college hockey for the Spartans.
Three of Miller's cousins -- Kelly, Kevin and Kip -- also played in the NHL. And Kip won the Hobey Baker Award in 1990.
Not to be outdone in family bragging rights, Miller put together the best NCAA season ever between the pipes in two categories during the 2000-2001 season, en route to winning the prestigious award for college hockey's best player his sophomore season.
His .950 save percentage and 10 shutouts that season remain unsurpassed. He also led the country that season in wins at 31, winning percentage, and a paltry 1.32 goals-against-average -- all still remain school records -- to become only the second Spartan in program history to earn the Hobey, and just the second goaltender since Minnesota's Robb Stauber in 1988.
Over three seasons, Miller also set the current NCAA record of 26 career shutouts among 73 overall wins, and was the CCHA's Goaltender of the Year all three seasons, as well as the league's overall MVP twice, winning in '01 and '02.
Despite the overflowing bag of stats and hardware, the lanky East Lansing kid at 6-foot-2 and 160 pounds still recounts one other award as his most memorable -- and one accomplishment not to be.
"If we had won the national title that year, you couldn't have written a better fairy tale," Miller said. "We only lost four times the whole year."
That fourth loss was the semifinal of the 2001 Frozen Four, a 2-0 back-breaker to Colorado College. Miller also led the Spartans to the NCAA tournament in '00 and '02.
How did Miller get on the Sabres' radar screen, and then go from an obscure fifth-round pick at 138th overall in the 1999 Entry Draft to a Hobey Baker winner in less than two years?
"Buffalo was hoping to take me as a sleeper because I was playing American juniors," Miller said. "Being mentioned with the NHL draft never occurred to me; just never thought about the NHL real seriously. I was a late bloomer and still a thin guy. I was really small then about 5-8, 5-9 when I was 16, so come draft time I gained a few inches, and not a lot weight. But I guess I came up on their radar screen."
How did Miller and the Spartans then quickly become a mainstay on the college-hockey television screens?
"Michigan State put an emphasis on team defense, but we got out ahead with our training. The NHL talks about getting kids in early to learn about workouts and train and be ready to play the NHL season. We were way ahead of that at the college level. I actually think I was bigger then in college than I am now.
"It was a team environment there. We were considered a low-scoring team, but goals came mostly from turnovers and hard work. Guys like John Nail, who wasn't known as a scorer or flashy guy, but he had 21 goals that year; a real role guy like so many on that team."
After that Hobey-winning season, there was no bigger name mentioned to depart for the NHL than Ryan Miller.
"I stayed junior year because [Dominik] Hasek hadn't made a move yet," Miller said, "and they had [Martin] Biron who took the [Rochester Americans] to the [AHL] finals. It had to be the right time for me to pass up staying in college another year and getting another year of education. I felt like I had a lot more to learn before playing at this level. It proved to be a responsible choice."
Leaving for the NHL after his junior year, Miller became the workhorse of the Americans most of the next three seasons from 2002-05. His 41 wins in 2004-05 tied Gerry Cheevers' [AHL] record.
Last March, with an increased workload each year since his 2005-06 rookie season, Miller played in his 73rd game of the '07-08 season to break the franchise record for most games played.
It all contributed to Buffalo signing Miller to a five-year, $31.25 million-dollar contract extension that will keep him in Sabres' garb through the 2013-14 season.
Well beyond the rink, Miller is also an upstate mainstay, founding The Steadfast Foundation with his dad, Dean, to support cancer patients and their families. Miller's successful professional and philanthropic run, however, has never diminished the Michigan State experience in the big picture.
"Enjoy the college experience and respect that pro hockey is a pretty sizeable jump. It takes time and doesn't come easy. It took me some time to get level, and I was riding pretty high coming in. I wasn't cocky; just, 'Well, I did well at college and it makes sense I'll do well right away when I jump to pro.' But it's a big learning curve.
"Use the practice time to develop your game, respect what comes after, and go for it."