Goalie Miller the rock for U.S. hockey team

Phil Sheridan

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Ryan Miller is all the proof you need of the difference between Olympics for the NBA and the NHL.

In the Summer Games, the pro basketball players are international superstars among the every-four-year competitors in other sports. From Barcelona to Beijing, from Michael to Kobe, fans gather just to catch a glimpse of their first-name-only heroes.

NHL players come to the Olympics looking to raise their profiles, or at least the profile of their league.

And so the low-key Miller, whose slight build and wispy beard suggest an indie-rock bass player more than an elite athlete, has consciously chosen to slip out of his comfort zone and embrace the Olympic spotlight.

“This is the Olympics,” Miller said. “There are more people, from different walks of life, paying attention to hockey. I’m trying to roll with it because I think it’s good for the game. People are interested. If they’re interested in me, then why not open up a little bit, because we might gain another young person who enjoys hockey, and we might grow our sport.”

And so Miller has, with good humor, tolerated questions about his girlfriend (actress Noureen DeWulf from “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) and dealt with being recognized by sharp-eyed Canadian fans on the street.

“It’s part of the responsibility,” Miller said. “We are kind of a cult sport in America. In Canada, it’s life. In the U.S., you get south and toward the central states, it’s nonexistent. It’s not even an afterthought. You have to search for it. These are the moments when you have the country’s attention, and I just try to look at it that way.

“People want to know what my personality is. People are asking me about my girlfriend. That’s what people nowadays want to know, I guess. I’m someone who has tried to be a little more private, but I’m trying to be a little more open and a little more of a product, I guess.”

The attention has not affected Miller’s performance. He has been the anchor of an American team that will play Finland in the semifinal of this thrilling hockey tournament. Miller, whose day job is with the small-market Buffalo Sabres, held favored Team Canada down in a 5-3 U.S. win Sunday and shut out the Swiss in a 2-0 quarterfinal win.

A win on Friday would set up a likely gold-medal showdown with Canada again on Sunday afternoon. Canada plays Slovakia at 9:30 EST on Friday night.

Slovakia upset defending Olympic champion Sweden, 4-3, late Wednesday night. Tomas Kopecky scored the decisive goal in the third period.

“It’s the biggest achievement so far in the short history of Slovak Republic,” forward Miroslav Satan said, according to the Associated Press. “We definitely going to enjoy it for a while and then focus on the next game.”

The Americans have a bit more Olympic hockey history.

A gold medal here probably would not have the impact that the 1980 Miracle on Ice did. But it would help establish the U.S. as more than a collection of hockey niche markets. A serious presence in international competition would create that much interest in the game, as well as the NHL itself, in the U.S. and abroad.

That’s why Miller, who has a business degree from Michigan State and runs an online clothing store called the Refinery, says it would be a big mistake for the NHL to change its policy and stop pausing its season so players can compete in the Olympics.

“I think the exposure is great,” Miller said. “I think we gain fans. I think the NHL belongs in the Olympics, because it’s a world-class tournament and we should have a presence there. We’re the best at what we do.”

While Miller may be willing to play the role of celebrity during the Games, his personality has not changed on the ice. He’s a cerebral, almost serene goalie, with no use for the dramatic flair many of his peers bring to the ice.

“Your personality shows in your goaltending,” Miller said. “When I was a kid, my dad would say, ‘Sports Illustrated isn’t here to take your picture, just make the glove save.’ “

Sports Illustrated and the rest of the world are here now, watching Miller try to carry this young and gritty U.S. team to a gold medal. They’re two wins away.

“It’s hard not to think about it,” Miller said. “But we have Finland first, and we’re all focused on that.”

(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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