First, play this in the background as you read this. Let a certain mood, a certain nostalgia sweep over you.
On Friday, the Buffalo Sabres announced that former goaltender Ryan Miller’s number 30 would be retired at KeyBank Center this season.
Miller, his wife (actress Noureen DeWulf) their children, and his family were in town for his induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The team released a video announcing the retirement, showing Sabres GM Kevyn Adams greeting Miller and his oldest child, Bodhi, and suggesting Miller and his family step out onto the covered ice. In front of a set-up net primed for what seemed like a simple photo op, Rick Jeanneret blared over the Jumbotron, announcing to Miller that his number would be retired.
Despite never winning a Stanley Cup, Ryan Miller boasts an illustrious professional career. The Michigan State graduate is currently the winningest U.S.-born goaltender in NHL history with 391 career wins, 284 of which he amassed with the Sabres, surpassing Dominik Hasek as the winningest goaltender in Sabres history. He started in net for USA Hockey during the 2010 Olympic Games, earning a silver medal and MVP of the men’s tournament. After his 11 seasons with the Sabres, Miller was traded to the St. Louis Blues in 2014, and had a stint in Vancouver before retiring an Anaheim Duck in 2021.
All of this sounds great; he had a great career. That said, there’s been too much harmony and too many good vibes emanating from Sabres fans lately, so some discontent was imminent. I’ve seen the questions pop up, both online and in my own personal circles: Miller was great, but is it really worth a ceremony? Does 30 belong upstairs as a revered number no Sabre can wear again without his blessing?
Hell yes. (Sorry for swearing, Mom.)
It’s not fair of me to call people who don’t like the retirement of 30 a bunch of wet-noodle nerds, as much as I’d like to. This isn’t Twitter where I can throw cheap shots and log off — I have to defend my argument that Miller belongs up there. I hope I can do him a bit of justice, here, and maybe sway one or two of you off the Haterade.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first — we’d be more chill about this if the Sabres never employed one Dominik Hasek.
The online discourse surrounding Miller’s number retirement, and whether he was truly best in class at the position, is obviously shadowed by the Dominator. It’s fair to argue that had Hasek played the same number of games as Miller did as a Sabre, he’d still sit firmly atop the mountain as the winningest Sabres goaltender (Hasek played 491 games over nine seasons as a Sabre to Miller’s 541 over eleven).
Hasek was a generational talent and won the Vezina six times, and is the only goaltender to win the Hart and Vezina in the same season twice. He’s the best goaltender the Sabres have ever seen or probably will see. Guys like that don’t happen all the time. The great equalizer, in a what-if world, would have been if Miller ever carried the Sabres to a Stanley Cup, but that’s some other parallel universe. Within this Cup-less universe, we’re resigned to comparing them as individuals. It’s hard to compare an elite goaltender in Miller to one of the greatest to ever do it.
I will say, I don’t think Ryan Miller is the shoo-in, instant Hall of Famer that Hasek was. If the pantheons of hockey history will remember a Sabres goaltender, it’ll be Hasek before Miller nine times out of ten. It just so happens that the Sabres have been spoiled (until recently) with otherworldly goaltending, and that’s worth honoring in the rafters here, at least. I posit that this retirement would fare less scrutiny on a team where goalie play wasn’t at this high of a level.
Next, the bloated number of jersey retirements here isn’t Miller’s problem.
The Sabres will soon have eight jersey retirements over their 52-year history, which, among non-Original Six teams, is high. But, if we’re talking quantity only, the St. Louis Blues, who are a mere three years older than the Sabres, also have eight retirements. The Dallas Stars, another peer age-wise, have six retirements. The Sabres’ 1970 expansion counterparts, the Vancouver Canucks, also have six (I mean, you weren’t retiring just one of the Sedin twins, so it’s like... five and a half). It’s hard to knock the Oilers for seven retirements in their 51 years, considering the relative strength of those retirements — you can’t really balk at The Great One being specially retired there, in addition to the league-wide retirement of 99 — but still.
I also want to emphasize the relative, here. Buffalo doesn’t quite have the same historical panache as Edmonton. The Sabres got a bit banner-happy over a few players that potentially would not have had their numbers retired elsewhere. But, we have to work with the criteria we know this team uses for stuff like this. In other words, if we consider a player’s contributions relative to the franchise as what makes him worthy of a banner, there are some guys in the rafters right now that probably shouldn’t be there. If the bar is Tim Horton, then the bar for the Sabres is low. Miller surpasses that by a country mile.
At the pace they’re retiring numbers, this is the Sabres’ mess to fix someday. Perhaps they could go to an “honored number” situation, where the number is available but still remains special to the franchise and the player still gets a ceremony and some sort of recognition. But the point remains that even with the Sabres’ very full rafters, Miller fits the mold to go up there more than most.
Finally, if this is fan service for aughts-era Sabres fans, there’s no number better to retire.
For the millennials and elder zoomers in the crowd, Ryan Miller simply means more. He defines the pinnacle of the Sabres in the 21st century, and a reason for the team’s ascendance in the 2000s.
Like I mentioned before re: honored numbers, many of Miller’s teammates from that era deserve something, but not quite with the distinction of a banner. Those teams were absolutely special as a whole, and there are names — Briere, Drury, Vanek, Pominville — who evoke specific emotions and remind us of fond memories. But they never quite reached the same professional heights as Sabres as Miller did, and I don’t see any guy on rosters in the height of the tank era who’d ever be retired.
Admittedly, Buffalo fans overall are a bit... sentimental. I was not on the train of hoping Ryan Fitzpatrick would sign a one-day contract to retire with the Buffalo Bills, but some were, and I probably would have loved it if it happened. If the Miller retirement is in that vein of fan service to get our butts back into KeyBank Center, it’s working, and that’s okay. Miller represents the best part of the Sabres’ prime. It’s okay to celebrate that. Let yourself have a nice thing.
Miller was a bridge for fans young and old. For older generations accustomed to Hasek, Miller more than handled the job as starting goalie. For younger fans like me, he’s one of our guys that got us to love the game, ubiquitous with Sabres hockey. That itself, alongside his care for the community and importance to this franchise on the ice, should be celebrated boldly.
I am overwhelmed. The Sabres organization, the fans and the city of Buffalo mean so much to me. Thank you! https://t.co/2klfj3aWQl— Ryan Miller (@RyanMiller3039) June 10, 2022
Whether you love it or hate it, the deed is done. Miller will be back here next season to see his name unfurl from the highest beams at KBC. What you can hope for now is a celebration worthy of a proper number retirement, much like the RJ celebrations we saw a few months ago. Maybe they’ll even let him meditate on the bench before the ceremony, as he did before so many games.
Or, they’ll let him say this again in his jersey retirement speech. A fan can dream.