Steve Miller’s life has come full circle in a multitude of ways in the last year, and the thought of it makes him beam.
Three decades after he left his boyhood home in Sun Prairie and found his niche as an assistant hockey coach, he’s returned to run his first show.
Three decades after he played on the inaugural edition of the Madison Capitols — accounting for the first goal in franchise history — he’s overseeing its U.S. Hockey League reincarnation as general manager and coach.
Thirty years after Miller played forward for the old Caps under then-coach Bob Suter, he signed on with a team partially owned by Suter’s son Ryan.
“Yeah, it’s crossed my mind,” Miller said of his circuitous expedition that began in 1984. “What a journey it’s been. Your first chance as a head coach is a chance to come back home.”
Miller, 48, quickly brought the thought to a halt, though.
He’s seated in Suite 508 at the Alliant Energy Center, where the Caps are headquartered and will play their home games beginning in September. He has a cell phone, a brief case and a file folder. He pulls out the makings of a depth chart that began to take shape earlier this week when Miller and his top assistant, Keith Paulsen, took part in separate USHL drafts that filled 47 roster spots.
“It’s nice to think that way,” Miller said of his sentimental return, “but this is the stuff that consumes me day-to-day and when I go to bed at night.”
Miller said the depth chart is the product of more than 200 prospect interviews that Paulsen conducted leading up to the two-phase draft held earlier this week.
The first involved players born in 1998. They are prospects that generally aren’t ready to play in the Tier I league in 2014-15 but will continue to develop at the lower levels.
The second phase gave the Caps rights to players projected to contribute immediately once the 17-team league begins another regular season this fall.
Bear in mind that the Clark Cup — given to the USHL playoff champion — is just getting underway between Waterloo and Indiana.
Among those chosen by Miller and Paulsen are six players from Wisconsin, including four expected to be at the first evaluation camp June 19: Sun Prairie defenseman Mikey Butcher; Prairie du Sac wing/center Luke McElhenie; Waupun defenseman Brendon Gysbers; and River Falls wing/center Billy Jerry.
Another state product, Oregon defenseman Alec Vanko, was acquired in a trade with Chicago.
In addition to lining up prospects for next month’s camp, Miller is looking to hire a second assistant coach as well as an equipment manager. He’s also involved with making sure there are enough billet families — area homes for the players to live — and determining which high school makes the most sense for his incoming teenagers.
Then there are the logistics of moving the family — wife, Heidi, and children Alexis, Cole and Connor — from Littleton, Colorado, where the Millers have lived since 1994.
Miller was an assistant coach at Denver under former coach George Gwozdecky until the spring of 2013 when Gwozdecky, a former University of Wisconsin winger, was fired by the school. Miller was retained by current Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery, but when the opportunity in Madison came to life, he jumped at it.
What exactly did the Capitols get in Miller? Gwozdecky, now an NHL assistant with Tampa Bay, said his former sidekick has “great passion, great energy” to go along with a “great eye for talent” that brought a steady stream of NHL-level talent to Denver.
“He’s always stayed humble and hungry,” Gwozdecky said of Miller, whose recruiting acumen provided the foundation for back-to-back NCAA titles for the Pioneers in 2004 and ’05. “I don’t think the success that he’s had has ever made him complacent. He’s always been one of these guys who want to continue to have success, but do it the right way.”
Miller is the fearless scrapper who was a 5-foot-7, 105-pound quarterback in high school. He’s the tenacious guy who was cut from the varsity in his first season at NCAA Division III St. Mary’s (Minnesota) University and who used the moment as motivation to become an award-winning force the next three years. He’s the well-read, ultra-prepared guy who welcomes a good sports debate.
“He’s a bulldog,” Gwozdecky said. “When he gets after something and wants something bad enough, he doesn’t let go. That’s always been his approach.”
Miller will no doubt want his players to have the same intentions he had as a 135-pounder at St. Mary’s.
“I tried. I competed. I worked,” he said.
Miller said his first go-round as coach would be one predicated on being stern and fair.
“I owe that to the parents,” he said.
“Every player who plays for him — or has played for him — will tell you he cares sincerely about the individual as much as he cares about them (as a player),” Gwozdecky said.
Bob Suter, a former UW defenseman who played with Gwozdecky in Madison, said he doesn’t recall Miller as a player but remembers that his nickname — “Killer” — was a playful reminder that opponents weren’t intimidated by his scrawny persona.
Suter, whose son Ryan is a standout NHL defenseman with Minnesota, said he thought Miller would be a good coaching fit with the Caps because of his local ties and his track record as an elite talent evaluator. Some of Miller’s finds — including Colorado center Paul Stastny and Pittsburgh winger Beau Bennett — have been difference-makers in the current Stanley Cup playoffs.
“He’s a good recruiter,” Suter said of Miller. “At this level that’s as important as what you do when you get them on the ice.”
Bob Suter should know. His youth programs for boys and girls under the Madison Capitols banner are highly regarded every season.
Gwozdecky said Miller already landed an exceptional assistant in Paulsen and is anxious to see what kind of product his friend and former understudy will put on the ice.
“I think he’ll be a guy who communicates well, a guy who’ll care an awful lot about his players, a guy who will always be very prepared,” Gwozdecky said of Miller. “The teams that he puts together in Madison will represent not only the Capitols and the organization but will represent Madison extremely well. I have no doubt about that.”
Gwozdecky said it’s great to see Miller’s hockey career come full circle.
“There are a lot of things that I think are a perfect fit for the Capitols and for Steve Miller,” Gwozdecky said.