Great players come and go in the world of junior and college hockey.
But, sometimes good and gifted players become even better at higher
levels (i.e. college and pro hockey) because of leagues like the North
American Hockey League (NAHL).
Two players who have come through the NAHL only to shine in their first
seasons of college hockey – Ryan Miller of Michigan State and Chris
Gobert of Northern Michigan- also played for the same junior team, the
Soo Indians of the NAHL under General Manager and head coach Joe
Shawhan. And it’s no secret that both were named to the All-CCHA Rookie
Team for ’99-’00 either.
Shawhan raves about players just like Miller and Gobert that he is now
developing, with hopes of similar results for the future.
“With Ryan Miller, we knew right away he was special,” said Shawhan.
“He had to strengthen up a bit because he had a growth spurt (from 5′ 6″
to 6′ 1″) in a short time.”
Shawhan says Miller probably had it in his bloodlines too, being
related to that infamous arsenal of Lansing area Millers – Kelly, Kevin,
“He (Ryan) always talked about making money at the game someday and I
know he will,” says Shawhan. “He’s that talented.”
Nobody knows about that talent more than MSU head coach Ron Mason, who
has coached all of the Millers – and now Ryan, whom he has watched play
since he was 5-years-old.
“I’ve watched him for a long time, watched him mature, grow like a
weed,” says Mason. “He has the mentality to succeed in the game and
already he has proven to be a very accomplished athlete.”
Mason says Miller’s biggest attributes are that he is a good learner
and doesn’t get too down on himself. He says Miller understands the
game, and his position remarkably well for a goaltender going into his
“He’s progressed very well,” said Mason. “And a lot of that comes from
his development in the NAHL.”
You wouldn’t hear Northern Michigan head coach Rick Comley argue with
Comley, like Mason, possesses a star in the making on his squad –
goal-scoring sensation and multi-talented center Chris Gobert. Comley
agrees that the NAHL does a tremendous job preparing players like Gobert
and Miller for the rigors of college hockey.
“The NAHL creates a solid game, is well-coached especially with people
like Joe Shawhan, and the travel can be difficult,” says Comley. “Those
guys who play up in the Soo have to do a lot of traveling and if they
can handle that, that’s half the battle.”
Comley says the NAHL is getting back to where it used to be in terms of
“There was a time where you’d see 10-12 prospects at one NAHL game,”
said Comley. “Now, you’re lucky if you see one or two, but it’s still
an excellent league for developing players for the next level.”
Players just like Gobert.
“You never know how freshmen are going to do, but Chris has the unique
ability to step forward,” he says. “I’ve watched him play since he was
young and I know he is and will continue to be, an impact player.”
Comley is most impressed with his young star for the fact that he had
to actually earn a spot on the team. Gobert, he says, never thought he
was owed a spot.
“Chris has the god-given ability to score goals, without question,”
says the Wildcats coach. “But, he also has the willingness to learn and
commitment to grow.”
Shawhan says he was never surprised that Gobert was in on a goal
scoring play when he played for the Indians.
“Every goal was picture perfect,” said Shawhan. “He always drove the
net hard and had a knack for scoring goals. We never saw anybody like
With such high praise, what do the up and coming stars think?
Gobert says he always knew he had a scoring knack – now he just wants
to pick it up a bit.
“There’s times when I struggle and get down on myself if I don’t
score,” says Gobert (18 goals, 15 assists, 33 points in ’99-’00, 3rd
highest total on NMU). “Those are just expectations I have for myself –
scoring is what I do.”
Gobert says his biggest adjustment to college hockey from the NAHL was
the more intense defensive style.
“College hockey overall is very defensive-minded, especially with teams
like MSU,” says the Marquette native. “I knew I had to work on my
defense down below the goal line and go up against guys who are bigger
Miller too, noticed the more defensive style from his perch in the net.
“Defense is something that everybody in the league is more committed
to, especially our team,” says Miller (16-5-3, 1.53 GAA, .932 save
percentage in ’99-’00). “You also notice guys are a little faster too.”
Miller says he had to adjust to reading plays and judging how far to
come out of the net. He says the NAHL was a little bit more risky in
“You could give up 30 shots a game in the NAHL, but in college a team
might average 15,” he said. “Even the top teams in the league might get
only 15, 20 shots a game.”
Another unique bond the two former teammates share is the respect they
have for one another. Miller and Gobert used to routinely test each
other at Soo Indians’ practices.
“Ryan Miller was unreal when I played against him in practice,” says
Gobert. “I knew if I could score on him in practice, I could score on
anyone in a game situation. He’s by far the most talented goalie I’ve
ever played with.”
Miller too is quick to heap plenty of praise back at his former
“I played with and practiced regularly against Gobert,” says Miller.
“It was a very valuable learning experience, going up against top
scorers like Chris. It really helped get me to the CCHA.”
And it has made some former and current coaches of these two fine young
men very proud. One in particular is the man who coached them both at
“I’m extremely proud to have coached both guys,” said Shawhan. “This
league has a good reputation and guys like them enhance that.”
You bet they do. And there soon may be more Ryan Miller’s and Chris
Gobert’s playing in the CCHA – and the NHL too.