It is Parents' Weekend, and shortly after Michigan State beats Michigan-Dearborn 5-3, the Spartans move their larger-than-usual victory party a few blocks from Munn Arena in East Lansing to the USA Cafe, a joint where the dance of choice is the twist, not the lambada. But in a private room next door, no one is dancing to the music of Chubby Checker or Bill Haley. Instead, the Michigan State hockey players and their families and friends are celebrating. On this night in late January, which is also the occasion when the team's seniors are honored, a wave of nostalgia sweeps over at least a few of the people in the crowd.
"This is so sad," says Marie Miller, the mother of senior Kip Miller, the team's scoring leader.
"It's going to be really strange," says Kirsten Miller, Kip's 22-year-old sister, who's also a senior at Michigan State.
Sad and strange, indeed, because Kip is the last of a six-pack of Millers to play hockey for the Spartans. Kip's uncle Elwood, known as Butch, played defense in 1955-56 and '58-59; his father, Lyle, was a defenseman in '63-64; Kip's cousin Dean played left wing in '77-78 and '78-79; his brother Kelly was a left wing from '81-82 through '84-85; and his brother Kevin played center from '84-85 through '87-88.
Kip, a center, is the last of the line; he is also the best. As a junior he tied teammate Bobby Reynolds for the NCAA scoring crown. Through March 1 he was leading the nation in scoring again and is a top candidate for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which is given to the best college hockey player in the country. For their part, the Spartans were doing just as well. Michigan State won the Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular season title and was atop the NCAA Division I hockey rankings.
Not that the Spartans' hockey program hasn't been successful in the past. Every season since 1981-82, they have finished with a winning percentage of .620 or better; they won the national championship in '85-86 and have placed second, third and fourth on three other occasions. It is no coincidence that Michigan State's success has corresponded with the arrival of Lyle Miller's sons.
Kelly was a talented defensive forward known more for his hard work and determination than for his offensive skills. In 1982 he was drafted in the ninth round by the New York Rangers, who later dealt him to the Washington Capitals. At 5'11" and 195 pounds, Kelly is a frontline checker for the Caps and now even boasts a solid offensive game.
Kevin, who at 5'9", 170 pounds, is the smallest of the brothers, was a 10th-round pick of the Rangers in 1984. Since leaving Michigan State, he has shuttled between the International Hockey League and the NHL. He is currently with the IHL's Flint Spirits. Kip, a 5'10", 190-pounder, is the most talented of the brothers. "Kip is a combination of the two older ones," says Michigan State coach Ron Mason, who has coached all three. "Kelly was a real hard-nosed, grinding player who worked well around the boards. Kevin had a little more finesse with the puck, and he could finish [a play] a little better. Kip is more of a smoothie. He doesn't play along the boards like Kelly, and he's got more Kevin in him from a standpoint of finesse, but he's still feisty. He can mix it up."
That should not surprise anyone, though, because in the Miller household the ability to hold one's own was taken for granted. "Whenever we played pickup games, it became an intense thing," says Kip. "It was fun, but it was also like, I don't want to lose to that guy, even if he is my brother.
"We used to play in my dad's [the Millers were divorced 10 years ago] pool, in the shallow end. It's a two-on-two game, with a hoop outside the pool. It's not basketball. It's more like dunk whoever has the ball. You take quite a beating. I think we've had a few bloody noses."
Lyle has owned and operated an ice rink in Lansing since 1975, and his boys spent a lot of time on it. By age three, Kip was a rink rat, as comfortable on skates as he was in sneakers. By 10, he was advancing rapidly, playing well above his age group. He graduated from high school a year early and at 17 enrolled at Michigan State.
"Coach Mason said Kip needed to accelerate his playing," says Lyle, who is the president of the North American Junior Hockey League. "Kip felt it was a great opportunity. I came to Michigan State when I was 16, and I said I would never allow Kip to go to college early. But he's handled it well. We could see him growing."
Sitting on the edge of his water bed in the room he shares with his girlfriend, Kelle Donnelly, Miller looks like a grown-up even if his room doesn't look as if it belongs to one. Clothes are strewn all over the furniture, and Kip must clear a chair before a a visitor can sit down. Now 20, Kip has bulked up since his freshman year, when he was so slight he was knocked off the puck easily and manhandled. Even then, his skills were such that he averaged nearly a point a game. The Quebec Nordiques were sufficiently impressed to draft Kip in the fourth round, 72nd overall, in 1987.
His sophomore season, however, proved troublesome. Kevin, a senior at the time, went to play with the U.S. Olympic team, and that meant Kip didn't have his older brother around to watch out for him. He fell in with a party crowd and lost his focus on hockey. To add to his woes, Kip shoved his arm through a glass window. More than 100 stitches were needed to close the gashes, and he was forced to sit out two games.
"I had a rough time," he says. "It was my first year living away from the dorm. I was living alone and got mixed in with a party crowd. I kind of got away from hockey. Toward the end of the year I broke free from some things, and I started straightening myself out."
He was helped in his efforts by Kelle, an aerobics instructor whose influence off the ice helped Kip to improve on it. "Aerobics helped my flexibility and my coordination, and I was getting into good shape," says Kip. "Coach Mason basically told me that what I did over the summer would determine how much ice time I would get.
"Coach was borderline on writing me off. I was a small kid when I came in, 155, 160 pounds, and that summer I got myself up to 180. Now I'm 190 pounds, and I think I still have a ways to go."
His personal life has taken a turn for the better, too. Kip's nights of hanging out in bars are just about over. He spends his free time going to movies, playing Nintendo or staying home and watching television with Kelle. "He's matured a lot in the last couple of years," says teammate and boyhood friend Steve Beadle. "He liked to go out and have a good time. Now he's a little more serious. He doesn't go out with the guys as much anymore. He's grown up."
Says Kip, "I made a decision that hockey was more important to me than being a partier."
He is making the most of the improvements in his physique and attitude. Last season he had 32 goals and 45 assists for 77 points and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker trophy. This season he has stepped it up another notch, and after he leaves school in May, a few credits short of a degree in exercise science, Kip will become the third Miller to play pro hockey.
Kip is a deceptively strong and fast skater with soft hands and a creative flair for offense, but he has been getting by without the aggressive, physical part of his game, the part of the game the Millers are known for. "There's no doubt that he'll play in the NHL in the near future," says Pierre Gauthier, the Nordiques' chief scout. "Kip is well aware of what he has to do. He became a finesse player, but he'll have to go back to the way he was when he was a 17-year-old freshman, when he was a bit of a pest, an aggressive, hardworking player."
For now, the NHL isn't foremost in Kip's mind. He is concentrating on the NCAA tournament, which starts later this week, and he has his sights set on another NCAA championship for Michigan State. And with his interest in exercise science, he may open a health club. "Who knows, maybe Quebec needs a fitness place," says Miller.
But at the USA Cafe party, nobody is interested in talking about Quebec or scouting reports or health clubs. Instead, everyone's talking about hockey at Michigan State. Says Lyle, "It's been a good 10 years, but what am I going to do with no more Millers there?"
The better question might be, what is Michigan State going to do?