In the fall of 2002, Ryan Miller walked into the Sabres' dressing room for the first time. So did I.
For 12 seasons, he played hockey in Buffalo and I wrote about it. Though our professions are wildly different, it was a shared experience. We visited 30 NHL cities across North America. We watched the fans go wild for a winner and boo a loser. We talked about games and restaurants, tourist spots and families.
While I've gotten to know other players better – I can tell you how Toni Lydman prepares his Christmas dinner and what Matt Ellis watches on TV – I've talked with Miller more than anyone. The goaltender is certainly the most cerebral athlete I've covered, and the 1,000 or so conversations have been great.
Well, make that 998.
There were two blowups in a dozen years, which is a pretty good ratio. During the first one, after Lindy Ruff criticized him and put the team through a gut-churning practice, I misunderstood Miller. For the second, which became a story I still hear about, he misunderstood me.
You know those days when you drag yourself into work and all you want is a quiet, easy shift, one that's free of hassles and ends before you know it? I was having one of those Feb. 13, 2011.
The Sabres hosted the New York Islanders in a Sunday matinee. The Sabres' previous game was Thursday in Florida. With two days between games, I extended my stay in the Sunshine State and went to Key West.
Key West is – how shall I put this? – ridiculously fun. My flight back to Buffalo wasn't until early Sunday morning, so I made sure to partake in the festivities.
Following a long Friday, I left Key West late Saturday night and drove up to Miami's South Beach area for a few hours before arriving in the Fort Lauderdale airport shortly before sunrise. The flight to Buffalo was supposed to get home around 10 a.m., which would give me time to catch a nap and recuperate before the 3 p.m. puck drop.
Of course, my flight got delayed. And delayed again. I finally arrived home at 1 p.m., took a quick shower and went to the rink running on fumes.
While I was hoping for a humdrum 3-1 game I could write by rote, Miller instead suffered one of the two worst losses of his career. It was a 7-6 overtime debacle against the woeful Islanders. He was not in a good mood.
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner had been on a decent run until that point, going 12-3-1 at the tail end of 31 straight starts. I figured he had earned a softball question that would give him an opportunity to explain the game and get me to bed.
“Did you feel OK?”
Having dealt with him for years, I expected the sort of answer a pitcher would give after getting shelled. “You know, I just didn't have it today. I could tell in warmups that I was a little off.”
Instead, the goalie went of the rails.
“John, I feel fine,” Miller replied in anger. “I don't even know why you're going down that lane. Do I feel fine? What does that mean? What are you implying?”
An argument recorded by Jerry Sullivan and the radio and television stations ensued. To this day, several friends greet me with, “Hey, do you feel OK?!” One Sabres reporter made a point of wryly asking Miller that question after every subpar performance.
For Ryan and I, the incident was put aside the next day, but it was definitely the most memorable from a dozen years of shared experiences.
Many looking to deal
The Sabres got the trades rolling. Expect the following teams to join in:
• Ottawa: The Senators really, really want Chris Stewart. The Sabres obviously aren't wed to the forward.
• Calgary: “Everyone is focused on the guys with expiring contracts,” Flames President Brian Burke said. “But we’re open for business for hockey deals, too.”
Though the Flames have explored an extension with Mike Cammalleri, moving the forward makes perfect sense. Left wing Sven Baertschi, a first-round pick in 2011, hasn’t fit in.
• Detroit: “We’re always looking to upgrade if there’s a hockey trade out there,” GM Ken Holland said. “I don’t see us paying a big price for a rental. I don’t believe that’s the direction we should go.”
• Pittsburgh: GM Ray Shero has made a move at or near the deadline in six of his seven seasons. While the Penguins have too many holes to fill at once, they’ll try to plug at least one.
• Phoenix: “We still think we have enough within our group to get to the playoffs,” GM Don Maloney said, “and if we can add to that to give ourselves a better chance, that’s our goal.”
A few teams could sit this trade frenzy out:
• Colorado: “Our group is believing in each other,” coach Patrick Roy said. “I think it’s hard right now to think of making some changes. … It’s very, very dangerous to try to do too much. Am I comfortable to go with the team I have? The answer is yes."
• Toronto: GM Dave Nonis has steadfastly maintained he won’t chase rentals or unload pending UFAs Dave Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin and James Reimer.
• Tampa Bay: The Lightning may make a move, but it won’t involve Martin St. Louis. The star’s Olympic rift with GM Steve Yzerman has died down, so anything drastic won’t come until the summer.
• Winnipeg: The Jets don’t have much cap space or many tradable pieces, plus new coach Paul Maurice started 10-3-1 so why mess that up?
Bailey causes a stir
The most eye-popping part of the Miller trade was seeing Sabres prospect Justin Bailey and his mother head toward the Buffalo dressing room just before the deal was made official. I thought for sure the Williamsville native was part of the transaction, which would have added another huge angle to the story.
Bailey stopped to chat on the way out and said he was just in town to check out the results of an MRI done on his injured shoulder. The 18-year-old has 25 goals and 43 points in 54 games with his junior team.