By Scott Lauber
© 2005 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – The best season of Austin Miller’s pro hockey career almost never started.
Miller, a Vestal native, contemplated retirement last April following his third season as a stay-at-home defenseman with the Mississippi Sea Wolves in the ECHL. At 26 and with an NHL lockout looming, his window of opportunity to skate at hockey’s highest levels was closing.
It was time, Miller thought, to use his marketing degree from Western Michigan University. So last spring, after the Sea Wolves’ season ended in the first round of the playoffs, he accepted a telemarketing job in Phoenix, where his girlfriend is a school teacher.
And he hated it.
“(Telemarketing) is something I never want to do,” Miller said last week. “But I’m at the age where, if I’m not moving up (in hockey), I have to ask, do I want to keep going?”
Considering the alternative, another season of endless bus rides and lumpy beds in two-star hotels seemed like heaven to Miller, who re-signed with the Sea Wolves in June.
Through 55 games, he has already eclipsed his career-high with 14 points (five goals, nine assists). Always relied on as a penalty-killing defenseman, Miller is being used on the power play, and GM/coach Bob Woods has even tapped him to participate in five shootouts.
Last Friday night, Miller recorded the deciding goal in a pivotal shootout victory over the Gwinnett (Ga.) Gladiators, the team with which the Sea Wolves are battling for the final playoff spot in the American Conference.
Miller credits his increased production to a better knowledge of the game and improvements in his puck-handling skills. He also believes he’s earned the trust of Woods and assistant coach Steffon Walby, a longtime AHL winger whom Miller calls “something of a mentor to me.”
But his outlook on hockey has changed, too. After almost hanging up his skates, he has a greater appreciation for the daily minutia of hanging out with teammates after practice or playing cards to pass the time on trips from Biloxi, Miss., to Pensacola, Fla.
“The camaraderie is the big thing,” Miller said. “Just seeing the guys every day. I’ve always loved the game of hockey, and any time you’re thinking of quitting something you love, it makes you appreciate it more. I’ve really cherished this year.”
That doesn’t mean Miller will return to Biloxi for another. He remains hopeful of landing a job in the AHL, especially after attending training camp with the Binghamton Senators in 2002 and the Manchester Monarchs last season.
If he doesn’t, Miller may revisit his real-world job search while he’s living in Phoenix during the offseason or visiting his parents in Vestal.
“In the beginning (of the season), I probably would’ve told you I’d pack it in,” he said. “But things have really picked up. It’s something I’ve pondered all year. I’ll just have to sit down after the season and make a decision.”