For New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller, scoring the overtime winner in the Winter Classic will be a lifelong memory. Yet, it was not the first time he came up big in an outdoor moment.
Miller had experienced a similar moment when he was younger as he told Chris Lomon of NHLPA.com.
A small backyard rink crafted by his father did the trick for a young J.T. Miller, who had no idea he'd be scoring goals on a much bigger outdoor stage at the #WinterClassic as a pro. His history with outdoor games: https://t.co/NGUgpk6Tel pic.twitter.com/Zuvox8Ie1t
— NHLPA (@NHLPA) January 8, 2018
As a youngster, Miller loved to play hockey, but the kid from East Palestine, OH (about 90 miles away from Cleveland) played football while he attended middle school.
“I played all through middle school – fifth grade to eighth grade,” recalled Miller to Lomon. “I played a little bit of quarterback, tight end and running back. I pretty much played linebacker the whole time.”
The practices and schedule for football and hockey conflicted while he attended middle school and though his friends all played football, hockey was always his first choice. He understood once he graduated to high school he would no longer be able to play football, but that didn’t stop him from having a great moment in his last middle school football game.
“My last ever game in middle school, I remember it was really cold out and I had three interceptions playing linebacker,” he said to Lomon. “I wasn’t really a big defensive player when I played, but I came up with three interceptions that day. That was definitely my best moment for that.” He cherished that day, then he went on to do what he was meant to do: play ice hockey.”
Miller was one of the lucky ones he was able to play hockey on a rink his dad built for him. The rink was large enough for Miller and some friends to play on. It might not have been a regulation size rink, but it was large enough for Miller to work on his skating, stick handling and shooting.
Miller told Lomon, “It was awesome, not many people had the luxury of having an ice rink in their backyard where I’m from. It’s not really a big hockey town. But he built that rink for me. It was just enough for a couple of little kids to skate and shoot on, along with a net and a goalie.”
At the Winter Classic, Miller skated on another rink “built for him” to play on. This time it was a regulation-size NHL rink, in front of 41,821 hockey fans at Citi Field in Queens, NY.
Once again, Miller would have that “big” moment as he scored the game-winning power-play goal to give the Rangers a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
“I got some nice text messages after the game,” he said to Lomon. “Nothing too crazy. But it was great to be part of it all.”
Miller keeps creating these special moments for himself and the teams he plays on. He is still looking for one more special moment as are all Ranger fans, when he can skate around an ice rink, hoisting up a silver chalice.