Sept. 11, 2013
Michigan State will induct five new members into its Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday, Sept. 12. In the second of a five-part series this week on msuspartans.com, online columnist Steve Grinczel profiles former hockey All-American Kip Miller.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
Kip Miller scored 74 goals for seven different National Hockey League teams during his 14-year professional career. His best season was 1998-99 when he scored 19 goals and appeared in 13 playoff games for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Miller was among the 1 percent, or less, of college athletes who get to perform their sport at its highest level. Making it to the NHL was a reward for the countless hours he spent learning his craft.
And yet, there's a very good reason why Miller calls getting inducted into the Michigan State University Athletics Hall of Fame his greatest achievement in sports.
Playing for the Spartans was a matter of the heart; playing professionally was a means to an end.
Certainly, what represents the pinnacle for an athlete is going have as many variations as there are athletes. For some, making a pro team far exceeds anything they did in college.
But for Miller, who idolized the Spartan greats while growing up in the shadow of MSU, being enshrined in the school's most exclusive athletic club is an incomparable privilege.
"I grew up in East Lansing a Spartan," Miller said. "My whole family is Spartans. All I grew up wanting to be was a Spartan. Those were my idols. I went to football games, we went to baseball, we went to hockey. Basketball was tough because it was also hockey season, but we watched.
"I grew up watching Kirk Gibson, Steve Garvey and Magic Johnson. I was at the parade when Magic them won the national championship in 1979 and it was just the greatest thing in Lansing. And now I'm one of them. It's quite an honor."
It's not like Miller is lacking for perspective in the honor department.
As MSU's rookie of the year in 1986-87, he scored 20 goals and had 22 assists while helping the defending national champion Spartans get back to the NCAA final, where it lost to North Dakota in the title game. During an abbreviated sophomore season, in which he also competed for Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Moscow, Miller still contributed 41 points (16 goals, 25 assists) to Michigan State's cause.
As a junior, he had 32 goals and 45 assists to tie teammate Bobby Reynolds for the NCAA scoring championship with 77 points. He also led MSU back to its third Frozen Four in four seasons ─ his second in three ─ where it fell to Harvard in the national semifinals. He earned first-team All-Central Collegiate Hockey Association honors in addition to being named first-team All-America.
After leading the nation in scoring for a second straight season as a senior in 1989-90, Miller became the first Spartan to receive the Hobey Baker Memorial Award ─ the Heisman Trophy of collegiate hockey ─ which is presented annually to the country's top player. His 101 points (48 goals, 53 assists) still rank second on Michigan State's all-time list. Miller repeated as a first-team All-American, was named CCHA Player of the Year and first-team All-CCHA for the second season in a row.
Miller left MSU with two CCHA regular season championships, a pair of CCHA playoff crowns and four appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
"I just know we had a really good team and I had really good linemates I was comfortable with," said Miller, who centered the line that included Pat Murray and Dwayne Norris. "We played a style of hockey that was about scoring goals and not about not getting scored on.
"It was a lot different then. When you took the ice, you went after teams and tried to score. I've got to believe that's the biggest reason I'm in the position I am today. I mean, I worked hard and prepared for the season, but we were a good team."
Miller said Boston College's Greg Brown was the favorite to win the Hobey Baker that year.
"What I remember is I wasn't supposed to win it," Miller said. "Greg Brown was coming back from the Olympic team and apparently was an NHLer who just decided to come back to play one more season, and I took that to heart because I was in the running and I wanted to be the best that I could be, and I thought it would help the team.
"But I didn't really ever think much about it other than, `Oh well, let's see what we can do.' I didn't think there was any more pressure on me than just being a Spartan and wanting to win for the school."
That was a genetic condition bestowed on him by his father, Lyle, who played for MSU in '63-64, his uncle Elwood (Butch), a Michigan State defenseman in the `50s and older Spartan brothers Kelly and Kevin.
"I give credit to my Uncle Butch and my dad for coming to (East Lansing) from Canada, raising a family there, going to Spartan games over and over ─ that's what we did every weekend ─ and teaching us the game and telling us we wanted to be Spartans and we were Spartans," Miller said. "When Kelly went there, I realized, `Man, I could go to school at Michigan State. How cool.'
"I didn't even think any other way. We were kids playing in the area and watching (record-setting stars) Tom Ross and Steve Colp to see what it was like to be a Spartan, but I was like, `Wow, I didn't think we'd ever be that good.' Then I remember watching Kelly and his teams and really loving it."
Miller scored 25 goals and handed out 47 assists in his final season of professional hockey with the minor-league Grand Rapids Griffins in '06-07. After retiring, he entered private business and is a part-owner of Walnut Hills Country Club in East Lansing. He also owns a Bigby coffee franchise in Traverse City, where he has lived for about a year.
However, there's no question where the center of Miller's universe is located.
"The NHL was definitely a special experience," he said. "But for me, I didn't grow up watching the (Detroit) Red Wings or pro hockey because it just wasn't on TV. Of course I knew about it, but I grew up watching Spartan hockey. To me, that was the ultimate thing.
"The NHL was an add-in later because you were like, `Wow, I've been drafted, I can go to the pros.' But that was something you did as a job with a bunch of guys trying to make a living who also wanted to win. You went to that school because you wanted to go to school there and play for that team. That's just the way it felt to me and why this honor is bigger than anything I've ever gotten in the pros."