VALENCIA, CA - You could count on two hands the number of California-born players to suit up in an NHL game in 2013-14.
You could count on three fingers the number who played half or more of last season in the NHL.
Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller, a native of Santa Clarita, California, gets to be part of the latter.
Miller wore the Spoked-B for 47 games in 2013-14, making the jump from the Providence Bruins to a full-time role after Dennis Seidenberg suffered his season-ending ACL/MCL tear and Adam McQuaid had to deal with nagging injuries.
With Miller's two-year, one-way deal kicking in for 2014-15, he's cemented himself in the NHL.
He's a rarity in the League these days: a born and bred Californian. He was born there, grew up there, now trains there, and gets to proudly say he's from there.
Now, hockey in California isn't out of place. With the LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, and state-of-the-art rinks all over the state, you'll find hockey players and fans everywhere.
Still, Miller gets to be part of a special group.
For the past two days, as we visited the defenseman to kick off this summer's #BearTracks trips, it felt like most other offseason trips we've taken to Canada. A Bruin's offseason consists of skating and intense training, no matter which city he calls home.
But when the second day of our #BearTracks trip around greater Los Angeles with Kevan took us out to Valencia, at the Ice Station, where he used to play high school hockey, the uniqueness of his journey stood out.
His path to the NHL wasn't like his Black and Gold teammates.
There we were, in 105-degree heat, with a skyline of mountains stretched out every which way around the rink. A Valencia winter sees high 60s, but we all know that's nothing compared to the New England winters Miller has had to grow accustomed to.
There, beyond a string of hills, was the valley where Miller grew up.
"My neighbor down the street had played roller and some ice and we had just moved into the house and I was five," he said. "We were playing roller hockey with my brothers outside and they kind of introduced us to ice, they brought us to the rink. And it didn't stop from there."
By luck, he was introduced to the sport. But once he started, the dream was born.
On his wall at home, next to a poster of his favorite player (he grew up a San Jose Sharks fan, and his idol as a kid is still playing, so he doesn't divulge who was on said poster - at least not yet), a young Miller had written out his goal. It was to make it to the NHL.
"Oh I mean, every kid when they're that age is like, you know, you hang your favorite player on the wall," he smiled, thinking back. "And that was a dream, so yeah, I had that as well."
When Miller started playing ice hockey competitively, he suited up for the West Valley Wolves. Once he entered high school at Canyon High, he played both travel and high school hockey.
The league may not have been set up like it is in New England, where the defenseman eventually went to play for Berkshire School in Western Massachusetts when he was 16, but it was prominent enough that both Miller and his friend Shane Harper, whom he still trains with every summer back in California, became rivals.
The two have known each other since they were about eight years old. With Harper being a forward (he played for the AHL's Chicago Wolves last season) and Miller a defenseman, you could imagine there have been some heated battles through the years.
"We grew up playing together and kind of against each other and I went to Canyon High and he went to Valencia, so we got a few years in the high school hockey league here, which is pretty cool," said Miller.
"High school hockey's a little different here than it is in Minnesota or Boston or anything like that. Out here is kind of like different valleys and different schools. We did travel hockey for a while, but it was cool to kind of represent your school for a little bit."
Coming back to their California roots every summer, Miller and Harper have kept training together, and battling each other. That was apparent even during the two days the #BearTracks crew spent with them, whether they were on the ice or in the gym.
"Yeah, still a little heated rivalry we've got," laughed Miller.
"There's always a little rivalry," Harper smiled. "I mean, he'd like to say he always has the upper hand, but no, we have fun, and it's definitely nice that he's a D-man, I'm a forward, we can both work on things to try to improve our game, like he can take one-on-one's and we're both working on what we're supposed to be, so that is nice."
"I mean, coming from California, you wouldn't expect hockey players, so us being from the same town basically, it is has helped throughout the years, just training together during the summer, even though we haven't played on a team probably since we were real little."
"Every year we come back, we get to skate with each other, train with each other, and it kind of pushes both of us and it's better for us."
As Miller left for Berkshire in Massachusetts during his high school years, Harper also left for junior hockey with the Everett Silvertips in the WHL.
They both had to leave California, but they knew what they were working towards.
"I said from the beginning, it was a goal to go play in the NHL, so it was something that I was looking forward to, but it's pretty hard to leave home at that age," said Miller. "But I was fortunate to get that opportunity."
For him, that opportunity led to the University of Vermont, where he became captain, and after going undrafted, signed with Boston in October of 2011.
Now, Miller is beginning to establish his identity with the Black and Gold, as a strong, physical presence on the back end who unleashes hits on his opponents without too much effort (or so it appears), and is willing to drop the gloves whenever necessary.
"Yeah, he's always been a pretty big boy and I think that's a big part of his game, being physical and you saw earlier in the gym, we both like to move the weight around, so I think that's just part of his life and always has been," said Harper.
There's another side to Miller, though, that his friend made sure to share.
"Well, I mean, he looks tough on the ice, but I think he's pretty soft at heart," he said. "I guess I see that side of him that other people don't. We were playing against each other on the West Valley Wolves when we were like 8, 9, 10, out at the IcePlex, where the Kings used to practice before they were in El Segundo, so I guess I see that side soft to him away from the rink and in the gym."
Having known Miller for nearly two decades now, Harper was proud to see the year that he had.
"It was crazy, really. I was in Chicago this year and I got a text from our buddy that said 'hey, I think Millsy's gonna be in tonight,' and actually I did watch that first game, and it was pretty cool," he smiled. "The past few years we played against each other, I was in Adirondack and he was in Providence, so we battled each other a couple of times there, which was fun."
"Then this year, when he hopped onto the big squad, it was pretty fun to watch and obviously, you're proud of him and just like he was talking about earlier, it's big for California hockey."
"Every Californian hockey player likes to see that happen."
The list of active California-born NHL players may be small (Miller, Brooks Orpik, Matt Nieto, Jon Blum, Emerson Etem, Beau Bennett and Jason Zucker among them), but it's growing.
"To be able to come back and kind of skate at my home rink is pretty cool, and to be able to give back to the community as well," said Miller.
He believes that soon, many other Californians will get to share in his dream. But for now, he's proud that he gets to help pave the way.
"It's obviously a big deal for me and there are a number of guys coming up through the ranks now as well, so to be one of the first guys to kind of break into that, is pretty cool."
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