Goalie takes advice from unlikely source

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BUFFALO, N.Y. - Ryan Miller never appreciated how valuable advice was until he sought it from outside the people he knew, which is where Tom Izzo comes in.

Pucks and hoops. What an unlikely pair they seem at first glance.

Miller, now the Buffalo Sabres' All-Star goalie, was a budding hockey star at the time at Michigan State. Izzo was the established Spartans basketball coach. They shared the same campus, but knew each other only by reputation and the occasional wave.

Then one day in the autumn of 2001, Miller found himself knocking at Izzo's door.

It prompted the first of many conversations the two would have, and a reason Miller, in the days leading up to making his NHL All-Star game debut at Dallas this past week, credited Izzo as having had a significant influence on his career.

"It was big," Miller said. "It was my first real step in the right direction."

Miller was 21 and entering his junior year when he was drawn to Izzo. The goalie was searching for ways to deal with the pressures that came after he was named college hockey's MVP, and the expectations of fans wondering why he couldn't get a shutout every game.

Who better to turn to than Izzo, who had just led the Spartans to their third straight Final Four appearance, including 2000, when they won the national title.

Izzo didn't tell Miller anything different than what he had heard before: Something about not worrying about what other people think.

But this time, it stuck.

"I probably heard it a million times from my dad or mom. But it seemed to sound different," Miller said. "Sometimes it's good to step out of the box. It just seemed like there was more to that approach than I was getting by obsessing over it."

Izzo chuckles at the memory.

"I said to him, 'Why would you come to a dumb basketball coach when you're a hockey guy?'" Izzo said.

That didn't mean Izzo wasn't impressed.

"I really respected that he had enough courage to just do that," Izzo said.

After opening his NHL career with a 6-11-1 record, Miller has gone 54-22-7 over the past two years.

"Ryan had to deal with demons," his coach Lindy Ruff said. "But he's got a tremendous passion and work ethic to become a top-quality goaltender."

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