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'He was just Ryan' | Miller's impact at Roswell still felt 7 years later

The former Sabres goaltender developed close relationships with patients and families in WNY

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Robin Nusbaum grew accustomed to receiving spur-of-the-moment texts from Ryan Miller during his tenure in Buffalo. Nusbaum coordinated events for the Courage of Carly Fund (then known as Carly's Club), the pediatric program at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

Miller, at the time as much a household name as any in Western New York, would text Nusbaum on the occasional day off and ask to come visit the hospital. The relationship worked both ways. Nusbaum could reach out to Miller for any of Carly's Club's weekly events to gauge his availability. 

"He never told me this, but I think he always felt bad if he couldn't do it," Nusbaum said. "He felt so upset when he had a conflict or couldn't provide when we may have said, 'Oh, we've got so and so here on this day,' and he couldn't make it to the hospital. I think he felt really bad. 

"He wanted to be there all the time if he could have been."

The partnership between Miller's Steadfast Foundation and Carly's Club was no secret during his tenure in Buffalo. He donated a suite to patients from Roswell for every Sabres home game and was recognized with the NHL Foundation Player Award in 2010. 

But the extent of Miller's involvement goes beyond the public sphere. Nusbaum recalls a quiet, somewhat introverted goaltender who first reached out to her during his early days in Buffalo evolving into a regular presence who could show himself around the hospital without her assistance. 

"He was just Ryan," she said. "He was so down to Earth, and he would just chat like a normal guy to all of the kids and all their parents. They started to get to know him more as Ryan the person rather than Ryan the goalie or Ryan the hockey player. It was really unique to see that because they had personal stories, they had personal relationships. They had a unique connection that a lot of people maybe weren't privy to. 

"He was just a really cool guy that wanted to come by and visit the hospital. In a way, he just happened to be a really awesome hockey player."


The relationships formed during his 12 years continue to resonate more than seven years after his final game with the Sabres. Jack Frost Jr. arrived home Thursday and quickly learned from his son, Jack III, that Miller had announced he would retire from the NHL at the end of this season. 

Jack III and his sister, Sydney, both received bone marrow transplants at Roswell around the time they met Miller in the Sabres dressing room late in his tenure with the team. When Jack Jr. estimates they met the goaltender a half dozen times, Jack III corrects him: "It was seven."

"When they're at their lowest point and they're sick and they've had everything that they've been through, to see one of their heroes and meet them meant the world to these kids," Jack Jr. said. "It picked up their spirts. They were laughing, they were giggling. 

"It took them back to a time when they weren't sick. For that hour or two, they weren't sick anymore. They were just normal kids with a great guy."

Jack Jr. recalled one visit to the hospital from Miller and his wife, Noureen DeWulf. Jack III and Sydney followed Miller to every room in the pediatric wing. Their father apologized afterward.

"He goes, 'No problem, I enjoyed it," Jack Jr. said. "After that he sat down and played NHL with my son on Xbox." 

Monica Szafranski estimates her son, Jimmy, had over a hundred interactions with Miller between his diagnosis with osteosarcoma in 2007 and his passing in January 2011. The first conversation was one-on-one and lasted 45 minutes. Jimmy teased Miller about his and the Sabres' recent performance, setting a precedent for their interactions over the coming years. 

How'd I do last night? I did good? Oh, OK Jimmy, thanks for the approval.

"It was pretty amazing actually only because if you didn't know who Ryan was, you would think he was just a normal person," Szafranski said. "He didn't have a persona around him that he was trying to impress somebody or just do it because it was part of the status quo of his job. He took the time for each individual child."

Szafranski says she could build a shrine with all the memorabilia Jimmy was gifted over the years: items from Michigan State, game-worn jerseys, and signed gear from the Olympics and the Winter Classic included. Miller donated his suite exclusively to Jimmy and his family for his 16th birthday, including a visit from his father, Dean. Szafranski said she remains in touch with Dean Miller to this day. 

Miller said Thursday that he felt like he owed something to the people of Buffalo during his time with the Sabres. The time he gave and relationships he formed were in part a way to reciprocate the energy and opportunity the city had given him. He wished for Buffalo to capture that playoff-type energy again in the near future.

Those he impacted in Western New York have wishes for him, too.

"Just keep doing what you're doing because it means the world to the kids," Frost said. "And it means a lot to the parents too, to see their kids let loose and get back to just being normal kids and not have to worry about being sick. Just stuff like that that he does. I hope he never quits doing that because it's people like him that restores your faith in humanity."

"Just always stay true to himself like he has been since we've known him," added Szafranski. "He's an amazing man and he's very much appreciated for everything he did for us both at and away from the hospital. I don't know that I can ever thank him enough for the memories that I was able to have with Jimmy because of their thoughtfulness."

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