Kelly Miller has no regrets about jump from NAHL to NHL

By Derek Berry
You can probably call Kelly Miller an alumnus of the North American
Hockey League, even it was only a three month stay.

In December, the former Michigan State star and NHL standout (notably
with the Washington Capitals) received a phone call he did not think
would come for awhile.

He started as coach of the Lansing’s Capital Centre Pride in September,
as a first-time head coach in a brand new job with a sparkling,
promising new franchise-in an area he was very familiar with-Lansing,

Little did he know it when he started out, but he was a wanted man
behind the bench in the professional ranks. Around the same time in
December, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim fired head coach Craig Hartsburg
and replaced him with assistant coach Guy Charron.

Because of his success in the pros and his connections (and
aspirations to move up) Miller had an opportunity that many don’t always
get a shot at and he had some soul-searching to do.

“It really tore at me,” says Miller, now an assistant with Anaheim.
“It was a difficult decision. It was hard to leave the team in
midstream, but I knew they would be in capable hands.”

Indeed they were and have been. Assistant coach Jeff Blum took over
and made what could have been a terrible situation turn into a big
positive for the Lansing club.

The Capital Centre Pride’s Ron Gay, director of hockey operations says
Blum took over right away and got the team rolling. Immediately.

“Not to say Kelly wasn’t a good coach, but we went on a five-game
winning streak right after he left,” says Gay. “We’re now sitting in
third place, looking at the playoffs. I’d say our team responded to the
whole situation very well.”

Gay attributes that to the team knowing and liking Blum, having respect
for him. So, it made it easier.

Meanwhile, Miller had some important things to deal with before he left
the state of Michigan, namely his family.

“My family was my first priority, the first thing I thought of,” says
Miller. “I hated to rip my family away from our hometown there in
Lansing, but we agreed it was a job I couldn’t refuse.”

Miller has had to live apart from his family for the early part of 2001
and the second half of the season with Anaheim. But, he keeps in touch
with them as he climbs the hockey coaching ladder.

“I knew I wanted to make a jump at some point and because Guy knew me,
it was an opportunity that came up quickly,” he says.

More quickly than he thought? Yes, perhaps. But, he felt he was

“I think the experience I had in Lansing, putting the team’s practice
plans together and spending time in Grand Rapids last year with the
Griffins, helped to prepare me for this job,” says Miller.

Miller’s former college coach and mentor, Michigan State Spartans’ head
coach Ron Mason, completely agrees with his former pupil.

“I could tell, with the time he spent with the Griffins and even the
time he spent over here (at Michigan State) helping out last year and
this past summer, got him ready,” says Mason. “I noticed that he was
learning the game from a coach’s perspective in the last couple of years
he played in the pros, so he was ready.”

Mason says he doesn’t blame Miller for making such a quick jump, but to
be ready for what can happen in the NHL coaching ranks.

“You just can’t pass up those opportunities,” says Mason. “I’m sure he
hated to leave, but the opportunity might not happen again. You’ve got
to go for it, for personal reasons.”

Mason says he never knows if a player has it in him to be a coach when
he plays for him in college, but he saw a lot of positive qualities in
Miller that he knew would help Miller later on down the line.

“He prided himself in being organized, both in the classroom and on the
ice,” says Mason, for whom Miller played from 1982-86. His behavior was
truly impeccable while he was here. I knew then, that he wanted to stay
in the game, in some fashion, after his career was over.”

Mason also cautions though, that the NHL can test your nerves too.

“You’ve got to pay your dues and be willing to take some risks,” he
says. “Because you could be out just as quickly as you got in. That’s
just the nature of the game.”

But, it’s a gamble that Miller seemed willing to take and so far he has
fit in nicely.

Although, the Ducks have struggled this season, they have made some
late season moves (notably, trading superstar Teemu Selanne to the
playoff-bound San Jose Sharks for Jeff Friesen and former University of
Michigan goaltender Steve Shields) that should help the club down the

“Getting Shields adds a good one-two combo in net with him and
Jean-Sebastien Giguere,” says Miller. “Plus, Friesen adds a tremendous
amount of grit to our club, so that will help us. He’s a young guy in
the league and I think we’ll see the benefits soon.”

Still, Miller won’t forget what he started in Lansing, in the NAHL.

“I learned a lot in that short amount of time,” says Miller. “The
transition to the pros has been easy because of that experience.”

Miller bills himself as a teacher and it’s something he worked hard at
in Lansing. “The only way to approach the game is to teach the game,”
he adds. “You start off with an NAHL team like that, you get a young
goalie, a young defense and you build them up for next year.”

Those are the seeds Miller planted with the Pride, according to Gay, as
Miller helped make some key trades for the team early on, that have paid
dividends near the season’s end.

“We’re now in third place and we just swept Compuware in a recent
series,” says Lansing’s Gay. “The playoffs are looking like a good
possibility for us.”

Gay says Miller and Blum helped get a few 80s players on the team, some
older players who add experience to the club.

“With the older players and the guys we drafted, the team is gelling,”
says Gay. “Those trades Kelly was involved in helping us make are big

Gay says he did not blame Miller one bit for his decision to jump to
the NHL and holds no ill feelings.

“I don’t blame him,” says Gay. “When you’re a coach, where do you want
to be? It’s a step he needed to take if he wants to be a pro coach
someday,” he said. “It just kinda happened. The phone call came in and
he had to make a decision,” adds Gay.

A decision that Miller does not regret. But, he won’t forget the NAHL
and he speaks very highly of the league.

“The Lansing job and the whole league is tremendous,” says Miller.
“They have a great atmosphere in Lansing and I really believe something
special can exist there. They’ve got a good hockey program there, and
they and other teams in the league will continue to be a great feeder
league for the next levels.”

And cousin Kelly keeps tabs on cousin Ryan, the star goaltender with
MSU and one of the top college goaltenders in the country.

“Yeah, I keep up with Ryan out here,” says Miller. “I watch a lot of
hockey out here and I get all of the MSU games on tape, to see how
everybody is doing,” he says.

Miller believes his cousin Ryan was something special and is not at all
surprised at his success.

“I had been watching him for awhile and knew he had what it takes,”
says Miller. “He has the ability and intensity and I think, someday,
he’ll be a top goalie in the NHL too.”

Who knows? We may see a scenario of “head coach” Kelly Miller, with
some NHL club, someday, inserting cousin Ryan Miller into he net. Like
Kelly Miller’s quick jump to the NHL, it’s not out of the question.