Ryan Miller took his time Friday.
He lingered in the locker room after his first skate with his Buffalo Sabres teammates. He lounged against a wall for a long chat with reporters after giving a lengthy interview. Then, more than 90 minutes after leaving the ice, he reached the lobby of Northtown Center at Amherst and really soaked in the surroundings.
At least three dozen fans were waiting for the goaltender. He signed autographs for all of them, putting his name on the cards of kids and the shirts of women in wheelchairs.
It was the kind of effort that will be necessary if the NHL and its players hope to erase the pain of the lockout.
“Just try and get back to being good ambassadors to the game,” Miller said. “We take the time to be a part of the community, and I think just going out and playing hard hockey is what people appreciate. If we can go out and do that across the league, I think we’ll be all right.”
The NHL will officially return today when the players’ vote on the collective bargaining agreement is tallied and a memorandum of understanding is signed. It will end a four-month saga that has left even the loquacious Miller almost speechless.
“I still don’t even know the right message because it was just a stupid, useless, waste of time,” he said. “My biggest thing is I hope the guys come back and play hard, and I hope the fans come back and still have that feeling of inspiration because guys go out and play hard and they hit hard, and they score great goals and make saves, do what they have to do for the team and do what makes hockey great.
“I think hockey will be OK. Yeah, I was a little bit worried there for a second, but cooler heads finally prevailed and we get to play.”
Miller arrived in Buffalo on Thursday night after an extended offseason spent mostly in Southern California. He was greeted Friday by 300 fans lining the practice rink, an increase of 300 over the players’ daily sessions the past four months. The change to a full rink from an empty one is a sign fans are ready to put the lockout behind them.
“It’s nice to see them,” Miller said. “Buffalo is just such a great sports city and big hockey city. I can’t imagine being a fan and not having that outlet.
“For me being a fan, it was hard not to have it on TV. I try and check out games and watch how players are doing. I tried to tune in to some of the world junior stuff. If there was a random game on the satellite or something, I tried to watch it.
“It’s been missing from my life for the past eight, 8½ months. That’s a long time. I tried to stay on the ice. I’ve been skating pretty consistently since June, but that’s not the same as playing with your teammates and going out and competing in different cities against other clubs. I’m excited to get back to that, for sure.”
Before Miller gets back to games – the first of which is expected to be against Philadelphia at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 20 in First Niagara Center – he reflected on his role in negotiations. He was one of 20 players who sat down with owners in early December as the sides made substantial progress only to watch it rapidly disintegrate.
“It was eye-opening in that you saw how things could quickly move forward, and you could see how it could all be dashed apart in a minute in a board room,” Miller said. “It was interesting. The biggest reality for me was when they wanted to start negotiating. You remember you’re responsible for 750 guys and it’s a $3.3 billion industry, so every single thing you try and float across the table, it’s hundreds of millions of dollars. You’re just like, ‘Ahh, I hope the boys don’t get too mad about this one.’ ”
“If anything, it’s a good life experience, but it’s a waste of time for hockey fans and hockey players and hockey owners.”
Looking back, Miller can’t see any way the sides could have reached a deal before now. He’s convinced Commissioner Gary Bettman wanted to wait until the last possible moment before signing. He said the union should have gotten organized a few years earlier in anticipation of a fight, but it was a mess until Donald Fehr took over as executive director in December 2010 and took time to get settled.
But it’s all over now, and he hopes the sport and its fans are ready to look forward.
“I’m glad we got a deal that’s about eight to 10 years, and maybe we can try and find some footing to have some kind of a better relationship with the league,” Miller said. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t working.
“It’s exciting to be back. That’s the way it’s supposed to feel. You go through that hesitant little false start we had in September and you get your hopes up a little bit. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs since then. It’s nice to know we’re going to have something going pretty quick in a week here.”