Strong support system has helped Wisconsin Badgers defenseman K’Andre Miller become a top hockey talent
At one of the biggest moments of his life to date, K’Andre Miller shared a hug with his mom.
That’s natural. You only get drafted by an NHL team once, so it fits into those life-changing moments alongside graduating college and getting married.
What came next in the seats at the American Airlines Center in Dallas in June was another important part of the story of how Miller, now a University of Wisconsin freshman defenseman, got to the lofty heights he was then enjoying.
He turned to his left and got in a hug with young Jordyn Helling, who was missing a youth lacrosse tournament back home in Minnesota to be there to support Miller, a hockey tutor and friend.
Then it was Rick Helling’s turn for a handshake-turned-embrace. Thirty-six years earlier, he was picked 22nd overall in a draft by a team named the Rangers. His sport was baseball and his team was in Texas.
Miller was the 22nd overall pick in the NHL draft by the New York Rangers. A curious coincidence, to be sure, but far from the only thing Miller and Helling have had in common.
They have Miller’s mom, Amy Sokoloski, to thank for putting them together. A single mom, Sokoloski wanted a mentor presence in Miller’s life in his young teenage years and Helling was enthusiastic about playing the role.
“We have a pretty cool relationship,” Miller said of Helling. “He’s almost like my father figure. Growing up, I always went to him if I had any questions. Or if I had something on my mind, I went to him. Having him in my life was huge.”
A former baseball player who was initially linked with Miller as a youth football coach was one of the key people in the support structure around a player who’s expected to be one of the top newcomers in college hockey.
Miller, whose NHL-level skating ability and 6-foot-4 frame helped allay his initial fears in a position change less than three years ago, enters the Badgers picture with a seemingly boundless future.
“Athletically, he’s got tools that people only dream to have,” Rangers assistant general manager Chris Drury said.
Add in humility. Add in character. Add in coachability.
“He listens, he watches,” UW associate head coach Mark Osiecki said. “Everything he does, it’s eyes open, ears open, mouth shut. That’s more than half the battle for anybody that needs to continue to grow in any position.”
Helling’s role all along has been to help keep that growth on track by sharing some of the things he learned as he built to a pro career.
The main lesson he said he has tried to impart is that, fair or not, his athletic skills and career track make Miller’s life different than what other teenagers experience.
“So as much as you’d like to be a kid and be able to do all the stuff the other guys your age are doing, some of those things you just can’t do,” Helling said. “And it’s not because you think you’re better than your friends. You’re an elite athlete. Your future is different than most kids your age, and you have to understand that.”
Helling climbed the ranks in a different sport in a different era, but the commonalities between him and Miller make the connection real.
Like Miller, Helling grew up as an athletically gifted child of a single mother. Like Miller, Helling had to navigate the growth years in the sporting public eye.
A tall right-hander, Helling played 12 years in the major leagues, winning 20 games with Texas in 1998 before finishing his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2005 and 2006.
Six years ago, however, he was Miller’s youth football coach in the Twin Cities suburbs, unknowingly preparing him for a shift ahead in his hockey career by changing his position on the gridiron.
Helling employed a run-heavy offense and didn’t want to waste Miller’s talent in a little-used wide receiver position. So Miller became a running back.
How good was he?
“I still, to this day, think he could have played college football if he wanted to,” Helling said. “He’s just a freak athlete.”
Sacrifices from mom
Miller grew up in Hopkins, Minnesota, obsessed with sports. He also played baseball alongside football and hockey.
“Always watched ESPN every night, every day,” he said. “I went to hockey practice, then straight to football practice one day. Always busy.”
Yet he knew hockey was always going to win out as his sport. It was something he shared with his mom, and Sokoloski made sacrifices to keep her only child in the game.
“She would work extra hours to provide for my hockey tournaments and hockey equipment,” Miller said.
“Her being there and really putting all of her life into mine and really getting me to this point, I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. Just having her in my life pushed me to be better every day.”
That push got a major challenge in high school hockey.
Former Minnetonka High School coach Brian Urick first became acquainted with a seventh-grade Miller who moved into the feeder youth program.
Miller’s bantam coaches thought his combination of height, reach, vision and understanding of the game would make for a good defenseman. But Miller was a forward because, as Urick tells it, “he wanted to score goals.”
“And as a little kid, I was the same way,” Urick said. “I never wanted to play D because you wanted to be the guy scoring goals. I don’t think it was something K’Andre really wanted to do at first.”
Miller moved onto the high school varsity team as a freshman, playing forward and contributing a few goals. But the idea of him playing defense never really went away, and when Minnetonka was short on the blue line in Miller’s sophomore year, Urick put the change to him as a one-week trial.
A week later, Miller was back in the coaches’ office, asking to go back to forward. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do it, Urick remembers.
“He doesn’t like to fail,” Urick said. “And it was kind of outside his comfort zone, and he was so hard on himself when he would make mistakes that first month or so. He’s a perfectionist, and it was kind of hard on him. But we just kept throwing him out there and throwing him out there, and he got better and he started to be more confident.”
Developing on defense
Miller turned a corner as a defenseman in a rivalry game against rival Eden Prairie that 2015-16 season when he was matched up against fellow future first-round pick Casey Mittelstadt.
“We put K’Andre out on the ice every time Mittelstadt came out,” Urick said. “And Casey didn’t have that great a game, and K’Andre felt that pride of shutting him down a little bit. He learned to take ownership of other things besides just scoring goals and looking at other ways that he could help the team, and he really liked doing that.”
After his sophomore season, Miller was named to the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, which chooses 23 players annually for elite-level training at its headquarters in Plymouth, Michigan. He spent two years there at a critical time in his development as a defenseman.
“He probably came as far as anybody (last year) as a player,” said Seth Appert, Miller’s head coach with the NTDP. “He’s already an NHL-caliber skater. He’s big, he’s long, he’s athletic, he’s physical. He creates a lot of offense on line rushes by jumping into the rush. And he’s a real hard defender.”
The progress in becoming a high-level defenseman, Appert said, came from Miller’s coachability and willingness to adapt even when the assignments weren’t glamorous.
In the second half of last season, NTDP coaches took Miller off the power play and put him into more of a shut-down defensive role. They asked him to be more physical and block more shots.
“It’s one thing to be coachable when the coach is telling you fun things to do,” Appert said. “A lot of the time what the coach is telling you defensively isn’t as fun. And everything that we asked him to do as a coaching staff, he went and delivered upon.”
Miller was one of the first to verbally commit to Badgers coach Tony Granato after he was hired in 2016. The allure of working with a coaching staff like the Badgers have was strong, Miller said.
And Osiecki, a defensive guru, saw something in Miller that he had seen before: a former forward who could successfully make the transition to defense. He was at UW for the college careers of Jake Gardiner and Tom Gilbert, two Minnesotans who made the move in high school and parlayed their success into NHL careers.
He coached two others in juniors, Dan Boeser and Tom Preissing. The constants between all of them and Miller, Osiecki said, were skating ability, a pure skill level and, critically, a vision of the game.
“These guys ... had very, very high hockey IQ,” Osiecki said, “so the adjustment period isn’t very long.”
Strong defensive corps
Miller is part of a defensive corps that’s likely to be the featured element of the 2018-19 program. Five players in the group have been selected in the NHL draft over the last two years. Undrafted team captain Peter Tischke is likely to have a pro career waiting for him after his senior season.
UW has major questions to answer at forward and in goal but it has a wealth of young talent, starting with Miller.
“It’s just cool to see a kid like that, with so much talent, be so grounded and be so humble,” said freshman defenseman Ty Emberson, Miller’s roommate this year and teammate for the last two seasons with the NTDP. “He walks around every day like he’s a normal freshman like he should, but then he’ll go out and be the best player on the ice.”
The Rangers hope that’s the case. They traded up in the first round to pick him, a sign of what they think he can be when he fully learns the defensive side of the game.
The team got to see Miller’s resolve in person at their rookie development camp after the draft. Miller’s equipment didn’t make it to New York, a scenario that could cause a young player to panic.
“He just took what skates they gave him and he went about his business like it didn’t faze him one bit,” Drury said. “That was impressive to see. This kid just showed up, put his head down, went to work and never said a word.”
In Dallas on the morning of June 22, the first day of the NHL draft, Helling pulled Miller aside for a chat. It was one of the days that every young hockey player dreams of, and the mentor wanted the mentee to realize how proud of himself he should be.
“Have you looked back and realized where you came from?” Helling recalled asking Miller. “Kid from Minnesota, small town, single mom. All these things that you had to work you butt off for all these years to get to where you are, enjoy what’s happening right now. Realize how special this is.”
Months later, Miller remembered it all.
“When we had that conversation, it really put into perspective what I’ve worked (for), working hard every day, trying to get to that goal of one day being drafted in the NHL,” he said. “So taking a step back for a second and realizing all that I’ve done and accomplished to get to here, it’s been a pretty cool road so far.”
With the Badgers, it’s only just beginning for Miller.