K'Andre Miller's unique path to becoming a top Rangers blue-line prospect

MADISON, Wisconsin — K’Andre Miller, a sophomore defenseman for the Wisconsin Badgers’ men’s hockey team, has a star quality about him that is unmistakable, whether he’s on the ice or off.

The New York Rangers noticed it, too. They took Miller with their second of three first-round picks in the 2018 NHL draft, at No. 22 overall, making him a key piece in the early stages of the team’s accelerated rebuild.

Selected out of the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP), Miller was viewed as a project, albeit one with huge upside. He had only been playing defense full time for the previous two seasons when he was drafted. A converted forward, he has a big 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame, raw athleticism and tremendous skating ability. Miller was still learning the position when the Rangers called his name, but he seemed to be an especially quick study.

As a freshman at Wisconsin in 2018-19, Miller had a spectacular season before injury cost him the last few weeks of the campaign. The Hopkins, Minnesota, native had 22 points in 26 games and made the Big Ten’s all-rookie team. Miller entered this season as one of two unanimous selections to the preseason All-Big Ten first team.

“He’s grown a lot as a player since a lot of us saw him before drafting him,” says Chris Drury, the Rangers’ assistant general manager. “Obviously, [Rangers director of player personnel] Gordie [Clark] and our staff of amateur scouts had a good read on him. Physically, he’s loaded with a ton of tools, size, skating. There’s a lot of things to like. Defensively, the more and more he plays at high levels, like at the World Juniors and in college, he’s getting better and better.”

Miller, 19, is one of the most interesting prospects outside of the NHL today because of his current development trend and how he was shaped into the person he is today.

The star quality was always evident. For a brief period, Miller was a child model appearing in Target ads and was even cast in a Honda commercial that featured former Rangers Mike Richter and Pat LaFontaine. He was a multisport athlete in high school, showcasing a particular talent in football in addition to hockey, and was mentored by former major league pitcher Rick Helling, who was his football coach and became a close family friend. But if there’s any one thing he really, really wants you to know about him, it’s that whatever he does next, wherever he goes in his career, it’s because of his mother.

Miller is the exceedingly proud son of Amy Sokoloski, who raised him as a single mom in Minnesota. She worked hard to allow her only child to achieve his dreams, and her example has stuck with Miller and drives him.

“My mom is one of the biggest inspirations in my life, probably will ever be in my life,” Miller says. “We didn’t come from the richest family. I didn’t have brothers or sisters — it was just me and my mom.”

Now a sophomore at Wisconsin and a blue-chip prospect for an Original Six franchise, his biggest dream is finally within reach. And he credits the lessons she taught him, the people she put in his life and how she let him go at 16 years old to put himself in a better position to pursue his dreams.

“When I left for the national program, it got hard knowing that she was all by herself at home, trying to watch me succeed,” Miller recalls. “I knew deep down she was hurting as much as I was being away from my best friend.”

Hockey forces you to grow up sooner in a lot of cases. Many players leave home at younger ages for junior hockey in hopes of achieving NHL dreams or a college scholarship. It was the path Miller felt was the best way to achieve his ultimate goal.

“Her motivation to even get me to this point pushed me every day to hopefully give back to her for all the things she sacrificed.”

One time, Miller was preparing to head to Winnipeg, Manitoba, for a tournament Miller described as a “pretty big deal” in his hockey-playing life at that point. But three days before it began, he broke both of his hockey sticks, which have become pretty expensive these days. Amy asked her manager at work for extra hours so she could replace the broken sticks. Amy always found a way.

“If I didn’t have that, her willingness to do whatever she could to see me succeed, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” he says.

Moments like those have added up over the years: The mom who made it all possible and the kid who used to draw nets on the wall in his building’s parking garage where he’d shoot tennis ball after tennis ball.

At the time he was shooting those tennis balls, he still thought he was a forward. During his sophomore year of high school, he made the switch to defense, but it wasn’t until his first year at the NTDP that Miller played an entire season as a blueliner. And his ability to adapt and make rapid strides at a difficult position only enhanced how he was viewed as a prospect.

Now he’s playing the position at a college known for training and churning out elite-level defensemen. With alumni that include Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and current NHL standouts Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh, Wisconsin is essentially “Defenseman U.” And it’s why the decision to return for his sophomore season was pretty easy for Miller, despite some speculation that he would leave for a pro contract.

“I didn’t feel like I was really ready or prepared for that next step yet,” Miller says. “Obviously, with these coaches [at Wisconsin], you’re not going to find that anywhere else. So I knew I wanted to develop a little bit more on and off the ice with these guys.”

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