2019 NHL Draft Ryan surreal

Some of you may have seen Mitchell Miller’s name all over social media in the last day or so, far more than any late round pick should rightfully be in the news. Whenever anyone is in the news that much, it stands to reason that the cause is not favorable. And boy is it ever not.

The details of his bullying are frankly disgusting and, as he was already convicted, they are a matter of public record. You can read more about it here and here. What follows is not, by any measure, a defense of Miller for any of his actions, because there really is no way to defend it, but a look at how we approach “character” when analyzing prospects, and some thoughts on why the publicly-known facts are not enough for me to advocate for the player losing his scholarship at North Dakota, or any hopes of a professional career in the sport.

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Before delving into some of the elements of the Miller situation that I think are noteworthy in bringing me to my present state of mind, I need to come clean that I have skin in this game. My older brother, Larry, was born with severe physical and mental handicaps. These conditions cast a large shadow over my childhood as he was in and out of the hospital continuously throughout his youth (and mine), undergoing over 20 major surgeries by the time he was 15.

I look back to my early childhood, when I was six or seven, and I heard the two brothers who lived next door, yelling insults at Larry. Insults that he only somewhat understood. I understood, and for a brief period, thought they were funny. I held Larry’s differences against him and felt, on some level, that his handicaps were reflected back on me. For a brief period of my childhood, I even resented him.

Thankfully, still around that same age as I was when I found the neighborhood bullies to be funny, I also realized that none of this was Larry’s fault. The despite his generally happy-go-lucky mood, he understood pain, and knew that many of the things he wanted would never be possible. And yet he was still able to demonstrate love for his family with a positivity that could be infectious.

I never spoke to those neighbors again, except to threaten them with fists if they bullied either of my brothers again, but that is a different story, something that happened when I was in high school.

I bring this up because I was smarter at age eight than I was at age six, and I am much smarter today than I was then. I grew up in a somewhat sheltered environment, going to a private, religious school and having little experience with people of different races or religions. Because of this lack of diversity in my young life, I sometimes didn’t know how to react to those that were different when I did encounter them. Before knowing what homosexuality really meant, I had heard dozens of jokes about it. Racial jokes were also abundant. I am sure that I laughed at many that I heard in my early adolescence.

I don’t mind saying any of this now because I have grown up. I’m in my 40s now. Things that I thought were funny in the early 90s I mostly no longer do. Things I find funny now I likely would not have understood at all back then. But I also believe strongly that my sense of humor changed not because of some feeling for political correctness, but because with maturity, with getting out of my childhood bubble, my world view expanded, and empathy rushed in.

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I had watched Miller play a bit in his USHL debut season in 2018-19, and saw some talent, but it was raw. I filed his name away as someone to watch in his draft year (2019-20) and watched others instead. When last season began, Miller was on a new team, and his play hit a new level. As in, he was really good. I chatted with an NHL scout about him, and the scout mentioned the curiousness of his offseason trade from Cedar Rapids to Tri-City. He did not know why Cedar Rapids would trade him away, and if he knew anything about his criminal past, he didn’t let on, as he suspected the issue was due to the Cedar Rapids’ coaching staff, if anything.

I didn’t think about that conversation again until a few months ago, when I heard through Guy Flaming that Miller had a criminal record. I didn’t have to dig too far before finding one of the stories I linked to near the top of this article. By that time, the McKeens Hockey Draft Guide was already published. Miller had performed exceptionally throughout his draft year and looked for all intents and purposes like a noteworthy prospect, earning the 50th slot in our rankings.

Once I found out about his past, I knew that I would have to dig in further, but that also we would be very unlikely to issue a revision to his ranking. The latter point is largely because we make a point of almost never factoring in “character” into our grading system, with only very rare exceptions. There is good reason for that.

For starters, I strongly believe that we would never be able to look at all prospects in the same manner when it comes to off-ice considerations. On the ice we know how to compare apples to apples. The context is established and understood. Away from the rink, the reliability of the information we receive is maddeningly inconsistent. Most coaches/GMs will promote their players. Few, when asked how one of their players is “in the room”, will say negative things.

Further, very few players can get to where they are in their respective draft years without a lot of hard work and so judging players by perceptions of how hard they work is worse than useless. In short, good character is a matter of perception and there is way too much hidden context for any of us to pretend we have a handle on those things in a way that would allow us to compare any one player to another.

Back to Miller. I wanted to find out how much of his past record was known to NHL scouts and what they made of it. I spoke to scouts from three different organizations (I did not speak to a scout from the Coyotes). One scout would not say very much other than being familiar with the matter and that his team tries to know as much about a player’s character as possible before drafting or signing anyone. Another scout noted that Miller seemed to not be sufficiently forthcoming in his explanations about his record and mentioned other, vague misbehaviors. The second scout was clear that his team would not be drafting Miller. The third scout was more positive. He had read the same letter than Miller’s camp sent out to all teams, in addition to letters of recommendation from the Tri-City coach and his billets, as well as coaches from his time with Cedar Rapids. This third scout believed that the record belonged to the past and that Miller at age 18 was not the same person he was at age 14.

Hearing these three different perspectives, I was convinced both that Miller would not be drafted as highly as we had him ranked, but that he would still be drafted. In all subsequent writings about Miller, I was sure to mention both his one-ice potential as well as his off-ice record, but we elected not to adjust our rankings, which were always meant to be a reflection of potential as a hockey player.

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Hockey has long had a very disturbing problem with accepting players of color. There is a type of character that is expected and accepted in hockey players, and that, along with other reasons requiring much deeper investigation, have not always made the sport comfortable for players of color.

We can see how Miller is treated, or how Steve Downie was given opportunity after opportunity even though his cruel and callous treatment of teammate Akim Aliu was public knowledge at the time. Downie, a white player, and clearly the instigator of the incident with Aliu was still selected in the first round. Aliu was traded away from Windsor and blossomed with Sudbury. Unfortunately, as many of us learned this year, racism followed Aliu around for much of his career. Downie is White and Aliu is Black.

Tony DeAngelo, receives chance after chance despite a well-documented history of spewing homophobic and racist slurs. DeAngelo is White. PK Subban is seen as a clubhouse cancer because he donated several million dollars to a Montreal hospital. Subban is Black. Josh Ho-Sang showed up late for practice once in 2015 and still hasn’t gotten out of Lou Lamoriello’s doghouse. Ho-Sang is Black. Casey DeSmith was kicked off of the University of New Hampshire hockey team entering his senior season after being arresting for assaulting his ex-girlfriend and then resisting arrest while intoxicated. DeSmith’s collegiate career was over, but he was later signed to an ECHL contract in the Pittsburgh organization, and rose up to the NHL within three years. DeSmith is White.

I could find more examples of double standards, but I would rather not. This is depressing enough. Racism is important to the Miller story, as Miller is White and the classmate he bullied was Black. Further, the victim’s skin color played a significant role in the bullying. Regardless of my feelings on the Miller, I have no doubt that if Miller was Black and the developmentally disabled student he bullied was White, he would have been treated differently by the law and by the sport of hockey, as repugnant as that would be.

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All of the above is true and Mitchell Miller’s case will stand or fall on its own merits and facts. I recently read an interesting article in The Atlantic about niche sports and Ivy League schools. The article discusses how the Ivy league obsessed spare no expense in having their children coached to the max in sports like lacrosse, rowing and fencing, in hopes of easing the process of admission to a prestigious school. The piece goes on to discuss how that abundance of coaching is sometimes detrimental to a young athlete’s chances of recruitment, as that athlete is more likely to have maxed out in their chosen field, while a similarly talented player from an area with less top-tier coaching may be able to improve at school.

I don’t know the particulars of Miller’s upbringing, but I do know that he was identified as a prodigy for an early age, having played for the prestigious Compuware program at the 13U and 14U levels by the time of his arrest. After the arrest, he moved to the similarly elite Honeybaked program before ascending to the USHL. What that means in terms of his psyche at that young age is only possible through conjecture. Clearly not all of his Compuware teammates committed similar heinous acts. But it seems to be the case that Miller was coddled from a young age. His gifts on the ice allowed the people around him to overlook some of his behaviors, at least until he crossed the line too egregiously.

Reading the news story about the court case, his parents seem to be making excuses for him, that he just is a good kid who made a mistake. When looking at how he communicated the matter to NHL teams, with a prepared letter, the impression I received from the scouts I spoke with speak to me of being over-coached. A young man who may be acting a role because that is what he has been coached to do. If questions veer away from his canned statements, he doesn’t know what to say. Sometimes, a lack of answers is an indication of a person who has something to hide. Other times, it indicates someone who simply doesn’t know how to represent himself. I have never spoken with Mitchell Miller, so I can’t say which is the case, but knowing how players in high level programs are trained – not just on the ice, but in terms of PR, and having spoken to enough young players to see that training in action, I would not discount the latter out of hand.

Please make no mistake; even if his current awkwardness and formality when discussing his record is a product of bad advice and coaching, that does not excuse what he was convicted of doing in a court of law. I will make no apologies on his behalf. Yet it is not unreasonable that his failure to apologize directly to the victim of his actions, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, may also have been a result of legal advice. Or (im)maturity. Or shame. Or fear. Or some combination of the above. There are several reasons why he may not have apologized in person to Meyer-Crothers, and some reflect worse on Miller than others.

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My wife is an Early Childhood Educator, and she used to tell me, while she was studying, that there is no such thing as a bad person, only a bad action, or a bad decision. She would not even make an exception for Hitler. This philosophy stemmed for her learnings about educating children, and how bad and good should be isolated to those actions, so as not to label people as one or the other, as children can learn from bad behaviors and change those behaviors. This gets back to my read on the Miller situation.

Like many athletes, Miller was coddled, allowing his talent to overshadow his behavior off the field of play. He would not be unique in that light. Think of the countless stories of NCAA basketball and football players who were functionally illiterate but were allowed to skirt through their education because of their athletic talents and achievements. If Miller was never reprimanded for bad behaviors, it is easy to see how those bad behaviors would proliferate and grow more sinister over time. Thankfully, we will never know how much further he might have taken things if he wasn’t caught when he was.

It is for the best that Miller’s history is now in the public eye. If he slips up even marginally at any point from here on out, the consequences will be swift and severe. And if he doesn’t, his good behavior will also be in the public record. One can say that the actions of the 14-year-old are the actions of a child and the law will agree, to an extent. Miller is now 18, and liable and responsible for everything. If he has matured, he will be able to point to his clean record. If he hasn’t, he will be found out very quickly in the age of social media, where baseball players are held to the fire for the racist and misogynistic tweets of their high school selves (see Josh Hader and Trea Turner, for two recent examples).

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I believe in the ability for people to improve with age. Not everyone does, but I strongly believe that we should all be given the chance to learn from our mistakes. It sometimes takes time, but I want to treat athletes the same way I would treat “regular” people. I don’t know what my colleagues and neighbors were like at 14 and 15. I would like to think that they are better people today than they were then, but I will only judge them on who they are today.

I do not at all excuse Mitch Miller for what he did to Isaiah Meyer-Crothers. No one can or should. Further, he should never be allowed to forget his actions. But I believe he should be allowed to grow from it and be as productive a member of society as his skills and work ethic allow, like all of us. The fact that his record is now part of public consciousness can only help his continuous path to (or from) redemption.

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Unlike the other major North American sports, when a hockey player is drafted by an NHL organization, the player is not given a contract right away, if at all. Depending on where the player played and will play, the drafting team simply picks up an option on the player that it holds for a set number of years before it either has to sign the player to a contract, or release the option.

Miller, drafted out of the USHL and committed to play NCAA hockey at North Dakota, has a full four-year window with his rights controlled by Arizona. Many players drafted on their way to college, especially in the late rounds, are never signed, no matter their past behaviors or actions. If Miller is less than stellar throughout his time with UND, he will never play pro hockey. If he is stellar and has more reports of poor behavior, he might never play pro hockey.

In using a fourth round pick on Miller, the Arizona Coyotes, perhaps cynically, are leveraging his record to take out an option on a player who would have been drafted far earlier than their first pick, in the hopes that he can prove his contrition and provide on-ice value in time. They must realize that anything short of angelic behavior would constitute too much of a PR risk to give him even a minor league contract, much less an NHL deal. The fact that Meyer-Crothers’ mother has recently come out to state clearly both that Miller has never apologized in person to the victim, and that he continued to torment the young man after completing the court-ordered probationary period certainly points to Miller simply being a bad seed. Ultimately, Miller must make the choice for himself to seek redemption, which includes, but is not anywhere near limited to, a sincere apology to Mr. Meyer-Crothers. We can allow him that opportunity or deny it. The Coyotes have already made clear that they hope that he proves the evidence of his youth wrong.

As for me, I still don’t think that we can adequately include character in our assessments of prospects. But I think we can do a better job of calling attention to serious issues when we learn of them, even if they don’t change our grading and rankings. Even though hard to quantify, they are still very important. When it comes to rankings, the NHL (not just the Coyotes) have proven time and again, that they will overlook horrendous actions on the part of a player if the player has sufficient talent. We have yet to see any evidence from the league as a whole that a player will be left aside for any level of bad behavior that doesn’t involve jail time. Not Miller, not Steve Downie, not Patrick Kane, not Bob Probert. The bar might be set at Slava Voynov’s level, or Mike Danton’s. Regardless of where the bar is, a question we should deal with as a society and as a sport is whether we should be as unforgiving of the crimes committed by White athletes as the world has been with those committed by Black athletes, or whether we should be more forgiving of Black athletes for misdeeds. I tend to side with those who try to offer a path to redemption. Your mileage may vary.

At the end of the day, our goal at McKeens is to look at the draft class as a whole and determine who the most talented players are, because those are the players that NHL teams are looking at. We do not publish a “Do Not Draft” list and never will, because we aren’t drafting in the first place. As we know that NHL teams will not overlook horrible character - and they never have – we are doing a disservice to our readership if we exclude players for reasons not affiliated with their inherent talent level. But we can do a better job of mentioning these red flags when we learn of them, and we are committed to doing so going forward.

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