Millar finding joy, satisfaction in passing knowledge on to goalie prospects
Growing up, Matt Millar was just as apt to be playing floor hockey or roller hockey in El Segundo with his friends as he was to be helping out his father in the Los Angeles Kings locker room.
Millar’s range of experiences is unique even among the California hockey cohort, where lengthy and winding journeys aren’t unusual. As he enters his fifth season in Dubuque, Iowa, where he is an assistant coach for the Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, he took time assess where he’s come from and his passion for helping masked men.
“My experience was different than a lot of guys’ from California because of my dad (longtime Kings equipment manager Peter Millar),” said Matt, who was Dubuque’s goalie coach and director of hockey operations until being promoted in June. “I spent a lot of time around pro athletes and a lot of time traveling with my dad to NHL cities, then I’d come home and play roller hockey outside with guys who had never picked up a stick.
“I went from one end of the spectrum to the other.”
Today, Millar is making his mark in helping goalies, often overlooked or rejected ones, jump start their careers in junior hockey.
His protégés include Christian Frey, a Texan who played for Ohio State University before signing with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League, Jacob Nehama, another Texan, of Colorado College, Hunter Miska, who led the University of Minnesota Duluth to the NCAA final before signing with the Arizona Coyotes, and now, Arizona native Jaxon Castor (pictured both).
“Every year he’s been in Dubuque, the goalie has exceeded expectations,” said Fighting Saints coach Oliver David, a native Californian who worked with Millar as an assistant for three years and then again when he became head coach in June. “All of them have different backgrounds and all of them were cut at one time or another. We brought Frey and Nehama in on tryouts after their previous USHL teams released them. They made the team and set records. (Matt) really is quietly doing something special with these goalies.”
One of Millar’s secrets might surprise you.
“My playing career was not as illustrious as a lot of people’s and that’s good because I’ve had to be a student of the game,” he said. “My mom is a teacher and always loved learning and understanding things. I’ve always been curious, a lot like Oliver.
“That helped me build my observation skills – I might see a lot of things others don’t because of the experiences I’ve had.”
After playing youth hockey for the Marina Cities Sharks and the Bay Harbor Red Wings, Millar played junior college hockey in North Dakota and NCAA Division III hockey at Bethel University in Minnesota. He skated in Kings summer development camps several times, yet that ensured nothing for him.
“My last year of college I didn’t play very much; I was behind two Minnesota kids,” Millar recalled. “What’s interesting is they didn’t get along well, and the coach called me in and said, ‘I think you’re important to our chemistry. Can you work with these guys and help them?’
“My last year of playing turned out to be my first year of coaching. I really enjoyed that year, helping things run well. It was fun to learn about people I was coaching, to apply techniques. I got more enjoyment seeing them improve than out of my own improvement.”
After a few seasons helping at Bethel and working various goalie camps, Millar took an assistant coaching job at Murray Hill High School in Minnesota – which won a state title – and began helping as a goalie mentor for USA Hockey under Mike Ayers. He also did some scouting work for the Coyotes and served as a consultant for USHL franchises in Omaha and Fargo, where he mentored Coyotes draft choice Mike Lee.
“All these experiences helped,” he said. “I got to see first-hand how a high-end Minnesota high school team ran. Once Mike went to Boston College, I worked with Kevin Reiter. I worked festivals, I worked with (NHL goalie coach) Mitch Korn.”
Millar’s work for the nation’s governing body for hockey continued the past few years with his involvement in the sport’s two major summer tournaments. He was on staff for last season’s Five Nations tournament team that won gold at U17, and he was on the Under-18 coaching staff for this summer’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Through working at a Pacific District camp in Alaska, Millar met David, who had just gone from coaching a North American Hockey League team in Kenai, Alaska, to taking an assistant’s job in Dubuque. The two, who never played against each other growing up, quickly realized their California connection. One thing led to another and former Dubuque coach Matt Shaw hired Millar, who stayed on board when Jason Lammers took over when Shaw took an assistant job at the University of North Dakota. Things came full circle this summer when David was hired after Lammers took the Niagara University head coaching job.
“This was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Millar said of Dubuque. “There are times you’re disappointed you didn’t get what you wanted but you’re given what you need. I can’t be more thankful to Oliver for recommending me, Matt for hiring me and Jason and Oliver for keeping me.”
Another part of Millar’s post-hockey education – one he points to as important as any of the hockey specific learning he’s done – came in his role as the Fighting Saints’ director of hockey operations. He honed soft skills while dealing with dollars and cents.
“We’re given resources to build relationships,” he said. “Go buy a lunch or a breakfast, spend that time away from the rink to understand where guys are at. Make sure we’re open so we can have a relationship with them.
“These guys don’t care what you know until they know you care. Even though they’re kids, they’re smart, they’re watching you. We put the time, effort and money into people. Matt, Jason, Oliver – they’ve all wanted to do that.”
That was further reinforced, Millar said, during a chance opportunity to work on the ice with Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford at a development camp a few years ago.
“That really changed how I approached things and coached technically,” Millar said. “To hear Bill Ranford – who has won Stanley Cups as a player and a coach – share his approach, it made me realize how important your relationships are, how you connect.
“Seeing Bill and (goaltender development coach) Dusty Imoo work with prospects at development camp and seeing that how they are as people is how they are as coaches helped me. No matter how good or bad a player was doing, they worked with him with the same effort, the same detail, the same attention to get their point across as they would an NHL starter. That was a big changing point for me.”
Add it up and Millar has plenty to pass along to his charges.
“All of the coaches (in Dubuque) wanted goalies to have their time,” he said. “I want to put effort into practice so when kids play it’s their time.
“I can’t say I played 28 years of professional hockey, but I like my past and I want to develop the next level of goaltenders.”
Photos/Dubuque Fighting Saints
— Chris Bayee
(Sept. 27, 2017)