By Shane Malloy | NHL.com
It is every California kid's dream to grow up and play in the National Hockey League ... OK, maybe not yet, but in T.J. Miller's case it is his dream.
The strapping 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman was drafted in the fourth round (107th overall) of the 2006 Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils and could help make California the next great hockey state.
Ever since Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988, hockey has enjoyed continued growth across the state. It has been 18 years since Gretzky came to Southern California and Miller said it was Gretzky's influence and positive impact that inspired him to play.
"I would have to say Wayne Gretzky," Miller confirmed as his hockey impetus. "Ever since he was traded to the Kings, my family and I have watched hockey. He's the person I admired growing up and that's why I wanted to start playing hockey, to be like him."
Miller played youth hockey in the Los Angeles area.
"I played soccer for about seven years when I was younger," Miller said. "I was actually pretty good at it, too. But when it came down to it, I loved hockey. And that's what I wanted to play."
The youth league system Miller started in is beginning to turn some heads in the hockey world and Miller believes the interest in Southern California could support junior teams.
"I played minor hockey with the California Wave and the Long Beach Jr. Ice Dogs," he said. "Yes, I think California is starting to turn out a lot of good, young prospects, and I think a lot more kids would stay with hockey if they could play in California and not have to move. I think California could support a junior team and be very competitive."
Because California has yet to wade into the junior hockey scene, Miller had to head north to the British Columbia Hockey League. He started out in 2004-05 with the Surrey Eagles, where he surprised many with his skill and skating ability. His first season in Surrey did not produce the type of offense and statistics Miller's talent is capable of producing thanks to the team's experienced lineup. He managed 12 points in 53 games, solid enough for a rookie, and his 85 penalty minute was a testament to playing tough without taking bad penalties.
The following season, Miller was traded to the Penticton Vees, where he dominated the league -- both offensively and defensively. His point total skyrocketed once he was given the opportunity and the ice time. Miller scored 16 goals and 32 assists in 60 games, picking up 73 penalty minutes.
"I have made a lot of improvements in the BC league from the moment I got there," Miller said. "Speed would be the first thing, it is a pretty fast league, and I had to adjust to that from the speed in California. Also, my playmaking ability (improved). Since the play is faster, I needed to get better at making quick decisions with the puck.
"The biggest difference is my confidence. I am not afraid to handle the puck and hold on to it until the last second. I know that I am a good enough player that I can skate the puck up sometimes and challenge other defenders and try to create something for myself offensively."
Before being selected by New Jersey, Miller chose to go the college route in pursuit of his hockey dreams, deciding to get an education along the way. He made the decision to go to the University of Northern Michigan because of head coach Walt Kyle.
"I chose NMU because of Walt," he said. "Everyone I talked to before I made my decision said that he's the guy I need to play for if I want to get to the next level. He has experience in the NHL, so he knows what I need to do to get there. I feel he can help me the most in my development."
Going into June's draft, Miller had the suspicion the Devils would draft him after the interview process.
"I was at the draft and I had interviews with a few other NHL teams that were interested in drafting me," Miller said. "But I kind of knew New Jersey would draft me because I was in contact with them the most."
"I am very honored to be drafted by New Jersey," he said. "They have a great organization and hopefully I can be a part of that soon. I think they drafted me because I'm a big kid and they know how I can play. They also know the potential I have. I showed it in my transfer from Surrey to Penticton. If I keep improving, they know I can be ready to play for them in a few years."
It is no surprise why the Devils drafted Miller considering how few defensemen come along who are 6-4, have good mobility, and can fire a puck through a wall.
After he finishes three seasons in the NCAA, the soon-to-be 20-year-old will be hard pressed to stay out of the New Jersey lineup and could be the steal of the draft.