James Miller always knew he would be a hockey player, he just may not have known how good he could be.
“I think like a lot of Canadian kids I was just born with skates on my feet,” Miller said with a laugh. “From the time I can remember I was always skating. My parents never pushed it on me, I played lots of other sports, I just fell in love with the game.”
While Miller says he always made the top teams he tried out for growing up, he didn’t stand out as a top-tier player that he blossomed into during his final year with the Vees.
As a first-year bantam, Miller posted 12 assists in 28 games with his hometown Spruce Grove Saints club and was drafted in the sixth round of the WHL Bantam Draft by the Kamloops Blazers.
“Growing up I never knew anything about the NCAA. All I wanted to do was play in the WHL like my brother did,” Miller said. “It was a really nice feeling to follow in my brother footsteps by getting drafted, but over the course of my junior career I learned more about the NCAA and thought that might be the best route for me.”
Miller’s brother, Ryley, is six years older than James and was the 31st overall pick in the 2007 WHL draft. He went on the play 241 games in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings before dabbling in a pro career both in North America and Europe.
Unsurprisingly, Ryley had a large impact on James while growing up.
“He had a huge influence on me,” Miller said. “Growing up you look up to your older brother. I always wanted to be like him and do everything that he did. I always mimicked him when I would see him do things and he had a huge impact on me and my career.”
After another season of bantam hockey, in which he nearly doubled his point total to 22, Miller then moved up to minor midget in Spruce Grove, excelling as a 15-year-old. He scored 11 goals and 18 assists in 34 games finishing seventh in the league for scoring amongst rookie defencemen.
Knowing he was ready for the next step, Miller made the jump to junior hockey as a 16-year-old but had to leave home for the first time to do so, moving two hours south to the Olds Grizzlys of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“They had a scout watching me play in Spruce Grove and they liked my style,” Miller recalled. “They offered an opportunity to play and develop in junior hockey. My mindset was dead set on developing by taking reps and making mistakes.”
Leaving home as a teenager can be a tough transition, but Miller’s family was close by and he was able to see them often during his time with the Grizzlys.
On the ice, the transition was much larger, as Miller had a major adjustment period from being a go-to guy in minor midget to earning his stripes in junior hockey.
“The first half of the season was difficult,” Miller admitted. “My first game I had a ‘welcome to the league’ moment. The puck got dumped into my zone and when I wheeled around the net I got blown up by Nelson Gadoury. He was a few years older, but he knew my brother and my family a bit. I definitely had to find other ways to win my battles and have an impact. I obviously wasn’t the strongest or biggest player, but I was able to think my way through the game and have a smart stick. I think that really helped me grow as a player, learning aspects of the game that weren’t as physical.”
Miller fought through the growing pains, ending the season on the top power play unit and top defensive pairing with the Grizzlys.
The team may have struggled on the ice, posting a combined record of 40-67-13 during Miller’s two years, but he had nothing but good things to say and good memories during his time in Olds.
“It’s a small town and everybody knows everybody there,” Miller said. “Wherever you went people would say hi and they knew who you were. The growth I had between my 16 and 17-year-old season because of that program was huge.”
After five goals and 21 points in his second season with the Grizzlys, Miller was looking for a new challenge heading into his third season of junior hockey. He had his sights set on either the BCHL or the USHL but didn’t know where he was going to end up.
“I really wanted to challenge myself and take the next step to becoming a pro hockey player,” Miller said. “I thought I was going somewhere in the BCHL but didn’t think I was going to end up in Penticton. When I found out it was the Vees, I was ecstatic. It was pretty much a dream come true, I was so excited and I left the next day.”
He admits he was a little nervous to be joining the Vees, but the team welcomed him was open arms and he made an immediate impact on the club. As Vees fans know, the 2016-17 season was riddled with highs and lows, so it’s no surprise Miller remembers that season very well.
“Looking back, my fondest memories are of that season,” he said. “We found a way to have success that whole year and despite not winning the national championship there were a lot of positive things that I can look back on and cherish for the rest of my life.”
One of those things would be assisting on Duncan Campbell’s overtime winner in game seven of the Fred Page Cup final against the Chilliwack Chiefs.
“That whole sequence is kind of just a blur,” Miller laughed. “It was just full of excitement and was almost like a sigh of relief. That whole playoff run was crazy with all the game sevens. It’s something that I can’t even really explain.”
Miller had come to Penticton with a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire already in his back pocket and made the jump down south for the 2017-18 season. He was always looking forward to making the jump to the NCAA, but it wasn’t until he got there that he realized he may not be ready.
“I thought I was ready, but I didn’t know how much of a step up the NCAA really was,” Miller admitted. “It gave me a chance to see how much harder I needed to work so when I came back to Penticton, I had a better mindset of what I needed to do to be a better college player.”
Miller returned to the Vees in January of 2018, scoring 10 points in 20 games while solidifying the blue line.
With one season of junior eligibility left, Miller was prepared to put in as much work as possible to make sure he was able to be the kind of player he wanted to be, which meant staying in town over the summer instead of returning home.
“Not playing at UNH and even when I returned to Penticton, I wasn’t entirely happy with how I played,” Miller said. “I figured staying in Penticton over the summer and taking advantage of all the facilities and resources we have here would really benefit me. My goal was to be the top defenceman in the league and be a true leader for the team. I can’t thank (Vees assistant coach) Matt Fraser enough for being by my side all summer to help guide me.”
The hard work put in daily throughout the offseason paid off in spades for Miller, as right from the drop of the puck he was clearly a new player.
Though he had intentions on stepping up as a 20-year-old, Miller insists there was never any pressure to perform.
“I think the confidence came from knowing how hard I worked over the summer and that it was going to pay off,” he said. “I didn’t expect the scoring to come that early, but I was happy to get that first one out of the way.”
Miller scored just 32 seconds into the first game of the season, en route to 18 goals and 62 points.
The scoring is something Miller can be proud of, but it was more of a team aspect that stood out to him the most.
“I’m proud of the team and the resilience we showed every night with a depleted lineup,” Miller said. “I think that speaks volume about the kind of guys we had and the type of players this organization brings in. On a personal note, winning top defenceman in the league was sort of just the cherry on top of all the hard work I put in and other people put in to help me. A large part of my success was because of everyone who believed in me.”
The points are stats that everyone can see, but it’s the underlying numbers that truly show Miller’s importance to the organization last season. Averaging over 26 minutes of ice time a game, Miller was jumping over the boards practically every second shift while still playing in all 58 games throughout the regular season.
There was a plethora of games in which his ice time spiked to over 30 minutes, which can take its toll on a player’s body.
“During the Pink in the Rink game I threw up on the ice during a penalty kill,” Miller laughed. “There were a few other times when I’d come back to the bench and start gagging out of pure exhaustion. But I think that’s just another thing that I can look back on in the future and think fondly of.”
Miller was on the ice for over 37 minutes that night against Victoria as Penticton was down to just three regular defencemen. Miller, Mason Snell and Jack Lagerstrom were the only able bodies due to injuries and suspensions. Despite the exhausted back end, the Vees still managed to win 4-1 against the highly-powered Grizzlies, with Miller adding two assists.
His leadership was unquestionable all year, which wasn’t limited to just his play on the ice. Helping guide the younger players off the ice and in the community was something Miller wanted to be better at as a 20-year-old.
“With how many years I’ve played I think I’ve learned a thing or two,” Miller joked. “I just wanted to be the best teammate possible and help the team win.”
Miller finished his junior career with 258 career games over regular season, playoffs, Western Canada Cup and Royal Bank Cup.
An opening-round playoff loss came as a shock to everyone around the BCHL but has given Miller plenty of time to reflect on his career as a whole.
“I think that was the lowest point of my junior career,” Miller stated. “It’s still hard to put into words for me. You have to give credit to Cowichan; they played a hell of a series. Personally, it sucks, but you can’t hold a grudge against a team that played so well. They earned it.”
Having been a member of the Penticton community for three-plus years, Miller was quick to state how important it is to him.
“You look at the crowds we get at the games, it’s so special,” he said. “None of this would be possible without them. They’re always patting us on the back when we’re winning and they’re there to give us a kick in the ass when we’re not playing well. I fell in love with this city and this is the place I want to settle down in and raise a family when I’m older.”
His gratitude wasn’t limited to the fans of the Vees.
“The guys you play with are what makes hockey fun,” he said. “The lifelong friendships I’ve gained from this organization are what I’ll always look back on. Every player that’s come through here has a place in my heart and I consider all of them my brothers. I was able to make new friendships and networks through this team that I never would have thought were possible.”
One of those networks is former NHL defenceman Cam Barker, who Miller will be training with over the summer to further prepare himself to make the jump to Northern Michigan.
While Miller may never throw a Vees jersey on again, he couldn’t emphasize enough how thankful he was for his time in the South Okanagan.
“You guys truly were the best fans and made my time in Penticton memorable,” he stated. “Thank you all so much for your support and I hope to see you in the community all summer.”
Fans would surely return the thank you, as they’ll always look back fondly on Miller’s time as a Vee as well.