AMHERST – As Ryan Miller leaned against a wall inside the Northtown Center, waiting for the first question, the Buffalo Sabres goalie finally had enough.
“We’re going to get right into it, no pleasantries?” Miller asked Friday afternoon.
So Miller, one of the more vocal players during the 113-day NHL lockout, went around to each cameraman and reporter, shaking his hand or patting his arm.
In his first meeting with local reporters since September, a smiling, upbeat Miller was his usual honest self while talking about the work stoppage – something he called a “stupid, useless, waste of time” – and the upcoming 48-game season.
“I think hockey will be OK,” said Miller, who spent the lockout in California. “Yeah, I was a little bit worried there for a second. But cooler heads finally prevailed.”
Of course, repairing the damage from the NHL’s second lockout in eight years won’t be easy.
“For our part, we should have apologized,” Miller said. “It is frustrating it had to go in that direction. But if anyone had an idea how it could’ve been different, let me know. It always had to be January in (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman’s mind. He didn’t come off anything. You saw a big change in Gary in the final hours (before a deal was reached Sunday). …
“The best thing we can do is just play good hockey … try to be good ambassadors for the game.”
Prior to Sunday, Miller, who negotiated with owners last month, felt “we were slowly slipping into a really toxic kind of place.” He seriously feared the season would be canceled. The direction the lockout had taken surprised him.
“But that seems to be the nature of pro sports right now,” Miller said. “I shouldn’t even say pro sports. We watched what happened in our government. Everyone has to play chicken to get what they want, and it comes down to the very last second, especially for the side that has all the leverage.”
Still, in Miller’s mind, the NHL Players’ Association had to fight. The dispute wasn’t about winning big. Players simply wanted to salvage some of the rights they had accumulated over the years.
“It gets to a certain point, they try to strip them all away,” Miller said. “It just kind of turned into an ugly situation. I’m embarrassed it went that far. I don’t think that was necessary.”
Miller partly blamed the union, which didn’t hire executive director Don Fehr until December 2010, for some of the ordeal.
“On our end, maybe it would’ve been easier to get organized a little bit quicker,” said Miller, who was blaming the leadership void the union had years ago, not Fehr. “But from a leadership standpoint, I think both sides could’ve done a lot better.”
Maintaining some longevity for average players in the new collective bargaining agreement was important to Miller, whose brother, Drew, is a journeyman with Detroit. Miller wanted no part of a two-tier system in which superstars would reap mega contracts, leaving little money for other players.
That system would force teams to use cheap youngsters from the minors and push some players – the “middle class,” Miller called it – out. He believes “fans appreciate” teams with all levels of talent.
“Guys would’ve been cycled out of the league quicker,” Miller said. “It would’ve been messy. I think that’s just mediocre hockey when you can bring in young guys because they’re cheap.”
In early December, Miller and some players joined several owners for a few days of talks, an experience he called “eye-opening.” Before the negotiations imploded, word leaked he had lost his temper at Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs, something Miller’s denied.
Miller said he “didn’t say anything that bad” and joked he learned he should’ve kept his mouth shut.
“Like it or hate it, I get pretty passionate,” he said. “I’m going to say what I feel. I just thought it was a little too late in the year to not being playing hockey yet, so I wanted to see if we could push the process forward.”
He added: “The biggest reality for me is when they wanted to start negotiating. You remember you’re responsible for 750 guys and it’s a $3.3 billion industry. So every single thing you try to float across the table is hundreds of millions of dollars. You’re just like, ‘Uh, I hope the boys don’t get too mad about this one.’”
A crowd of around 200 or so people Friday watched Miller, just back from California, and 18 other Sabres skate, including Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Sulzer, two defensemen just back from Germany.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said earlier this week the 32-year-old Miller, who’s played 59 or more games the last six years, would get about 36 to 38 starts this season. Backup Jhonas Enroth would get the rest.
“I haven’t put any thought into a number,” Miller said. “I just thought I’d be ready to play. Just get tapped on the shoulder and go about it that way. You got to have your best guys, and whoever’s playing the best going. I just want to be that guy. We’ll go by that.”