Reggie Millette remembers when his family couldn't afford to pay his registration fees when he began playing organized youth hockey in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"People anonymously paid my ice bill," said Millette, a 20-year-old forward for Dubuque of the United States Hockey League. "We have no clue who they were; they wouldn't tell us who they were. It was just like, 'This kid Reggie, we see something in him, so we'll help out.'"
The kindness and faith of others, coupled with Millette's drive to succeed, has taken him on an improbable hockey journey from hardscrabble circumstances in Florida and Indiana to Detroit's ultra-competitive youth scene to the top junior league in the United States.
The next stop will be Springfield, Massachusetts; Millette is committed to play for American International College, an NCAA Division I program, beginning in the 2021-22 season.
"In terms of hockey, it's a dream and it means I'm taking steps in the right direction," he said. "I just want to play pro somewhere eventually, either the NHL or overseas or somewhere. The biggest thing for me is taking care of my family back in Indiana. I'm trying to do this for them so we can get a better situation."
Millette wouldn't be viewed by many as a blue-chip college recruit based on his stats alone. He scored three goals and finished with nine points in 48 games during a USHL season that was cut short in March due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
Dubuque coach Oliver David gave an honest and emotional assessment of the 5-foot-11, 183-pound forward.
"Reggie is an average skater, an average puck handler, an average shooter, an average hockey player at the Tier I level," David said as he choked back tears on the U-Show podcast last month. "What Reggie is not is average in any category that I personally value in a human being. He is extraordinary. The difference that he makes, the quality that he brings to a locker room is the reason we (found) consistency."
American International coach Eric Lang agreed, saying there's much more to Millette -- and hockey players in general -- than goals and assists.
"We are willing to trade skill for leadership and character and culture," said Lang whose team won its second consecutive regular-season championship in February. "When you watch Reggie on the ice, he's a selfless player. He's hard on pucks, finishes checks, blocks shots. His play away from the puck is selfless, he sticks up for his teammates. When you start putting the pieces of the puzzle together, you go, 'Yeah this makes a lot of sense.'"
Millette was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and cared for mostly by his mother, Cassandra McNair, and grandmother, Pamela McNair. He said his surroundings were tough ones.
"Not a lot of people had things, and when you don't have things for a long time you pretty much say, 'I'm going to take it from someone else,' he said. "It's block-versus-block, and it turns into a gang thing. Really, everyone is just kind of fending for themselves with not a lot of money."
Seeking a better environment, Millette's grandmother moved him to Fort Wayne and took him to a local rink in search of an activity to help keep him out of trouble. He tried speed skating first but was quickly fascinated by hockey.
"Before hockey, I was getting suspended from school and fighting a lot and doing things I could eventually end up in jail [for] when I got older," he said.
But hockey had its own set of challenges. Millette recalled that he played his first game in speed skates.
"It was kind of goofy," he said with a laugh. "I kind of long-strided it. I didn't touch the puck much."
As he improved as a player, Millette said he had to deal with racist taunts during games. His grandmother prepared him for them.
"She always told me, 'Don't let anyone tell you that you can't play the game,'" he said. "The parents on the other team would kind of yell at me or bang the glass and do gestures at me. It was easy for me because I'd already been through tougher things than that. So for me it was like, 'Wow, this is what you have to do to get me off my game and it's not really working.'"
Millette's life took another significant turn about eight years ago when Rick Scero, who was coaching the Victory Honda Bantam Minor AAA team near Detroit, heard about him from one of his assistants.
That assistant, Dan MacKinnon, who was also the Pittsburgh Penguins' director of player personnel, spotted Millette during an outreach trip to Fort Wayne, Scero said. MacKinnon is now a senior vice president and assistant general manager for the New Jersey Devils.
Scero invited Millette to play for his team in a spring league and marveled that the 12-year-old was "probably one of the hardest practice players I've ever seen. When he practices it's just like a game, every drill."
Millette's grandmother made the two-hour, one-way drive from Fort Wayne to Plymouth, Michigan, twice a week that spring. But when Victory Honda decided that it wanted Millette for its fall team, a decision had to be made.
"What are we going to do about Reggie?" Scero said. "There's no way of playing AAA hockey in Detroit if you're going to drive two hours one way for practices and game because we're on the ice four, five times a week. It's just not feasible."
Scero and his team was looking into finding a billet family to house Millette. Then one day he heard his wife, Chris, asking their grown children, Brandon and Brittney, "if it's all right for Reggie to come live with us?"
"How do you not give a kid an opportunity?" said Rick Scero, whose son played for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "We had to go to court to get legal custody of him. We just had to file paperwork with the court every year until he turned 18."
Millette said he now calls the Sceros "mom and dad. They're kind of my parents and they see me as their son.
"They really helped me grow," he said. "They know where I come from and how it's been. It's all supportive with them, talking things through. They got me a therapist who I can talk to when things are going left or right. They gave me another option besides them, even though I can go to them. They just keep giving me the support that I need."
Millette experienced success on the ice, playing on championship teams for Compuware of the High Performance Hockey League in 2016-17 and Austin of the North American Hockey League in 2018-19.
"He was never our best goal-scorer, he was never our best assist guy," said Scero, who helped coach Compuware under former NHL forward Pat Peake. "But there's not a guy on the team who didn't want him on the ice when the game was on the line. He's not going to let you beat him at that point."
Dubuque selected Millette in the fifth round (No. 70) in the 2019 USHL draft and he quickly became a fan favorite, mainly for his work on the league's fifth-ranked penalty-kill unit.
"He's probably the only player we've had in Dubuque who's got a standing ovation, fans chanting his name, without even scoring goals or anything like that," Dubuque general manager Kalle Larsson said. "He's a real big part of our hockey team."
AIC coach Lang expects nothing less from Millette when he arrives on campus.
"Reggie Millette, I have no doubt, will wear a letter at AIC at some point," he said.