December 29, 2008
Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller played his part in the historic Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium earlier this year, becoming both the first NHL goalie to lose in an outdoor shootout (to Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, no less) and the first keeper to utter the words "Yo-mama-ween" in a nationally televised commercial.
But in the history of Ryan Miller, the Winter Classic was just another hockey game he's played in an open-air stadium; previously competing in front of 75,000 fans in 2001, as his Michigan State Spartans faced arch rival Michigan on a breezy October day.
With the NHL now claiming the potential for snow at this year's Winter Classic at Wrigley Field between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings, we caught up with Miller recently to get his advice for playing hockey in the elements -- and in front of tens of thousands more fans than usual.
The crowds, he said, make everything in the game amplified, saying that it's no wonder "why football players celebrate when they make a big hit or a first down." (Or, in some cases, make post-touchdown snow angels.)
So do you ignore the reactions and ovations from tens of thousands of people? "You just try not to get too caught up in it," said Miller. "The first time, I made it a point not to look around, not to take it all in. The second time, I had a little more fun with it. Look at the crowd, but not get caught up in it."
The immense crowd is just another way the Winter Classic knocks players out of their comfort zones, from trying to stay hydrated in whipping winter winds to consistent breaks in their typical gameday rituals.
Miller said that during the Winter Classic in Buffalo, one of the biggest changes was the distance between the locker rooms and the rinks. That affected how much time the players could rest up and refocus between periods.
"With all the hype, it's way out of your routine," said Miller. "You gotta just take it for what it is. People make it out to be bigger than a hockey game; you just have to make it as small as possible and try to stick to normal things."
But how normal is trying to play goal in snow globe conditions, like Miller did against the Penguins? Trying to defend against shots, he said, demands an intense focus.
"It's kinda like driving in the snow. Your eyes get a little tired. When you're trying to focus on that little puck in the snow, you're concentrating really hard," said Miller.
Miller didn't concentrate too much on the frigid temperatures in Buffalo. He said it's all about preparation ... and perspiration.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought, but I did have to have some foot-warmers. I ran out in overtime," he said. "You change out your shirt in between periods, make sure you're just dry. It wasn't that bad."
"Bad" was used by more than a few players to describe the ice at times, as snow accumulated on the rink during the game. However, Miller said outside of a few potholes here and there the ice "really wasn't a huge issue."
The last thing we wanted to know from Miller was about the date of the game: Jan. 1. More specifically, the fact that it follows arguably the biggest party night of the calendar year.
He's a red-blooded 28-year-old American with money to burn; did Miller partake in any New Year's Eve revelry the night before the Classic?
"Nah, just laid low. Had dinner with some family. You're supposed to be professional at all times, anyways," he said.
Spoilsports. So much for one of the Red Wings or Blackhawks pulling a Brophy from "Slap Shot" and begging guys not to throw'em against the boards for fear that they'd piss themselves ...