2011-09-09 / Sports

Aviators Head Coach Rob Miller Previews Upcoming Season

By Marc Spitzer

Rob Miller, head coach of the Brooklyn Aviators (left) poses with Awwad Basen, owner/ team president of the Akwesasne Warriors. Rob Miller, head coach of the Brooklyn Aviators (left) poses with Awwad Basen, owner/ team president of the Akwesasne Warriors. Don’t ask head coach, de facto general manager and team president Rob Miller of the newly-named Brooklyn Aviators of the Federal Hockey League if he is likely to play again.

He will probably get a look on his face reminiscent of someone who has just found an insect in his food. He wants no part of that. Not anymore.

“I like coaching,” says the 32-year-old Miller who is getting married in September. “I’ll never play professionally again, no way, unless some idiot GM pays me a thousand bucks a week,” he said, laughing. “That’s the only way. That’s not going to happen. I never made even close to that when I did play.”

Miller only played five years of professional hockey after graduating from Division Three Salem State College in Massachusetts with a B.S. in communications and a minor in English in 2001. He began his college career majoring in sports management at New Hampshire University (now called Southern New Hampshire University) and played on the same team as his identical brother, Rich, for two years.

The brothers often set each other up on the ice. “All the time. All the time. More so me to him obviously,” said Rob who accumulated 32 points (five goals, 27 assists) in 50 games playing as a defenseman for NHU. He added eight goals and 30 assists in 52 games for Salem State.

Rich, who was inducted into the Southern New Hampshire University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010, was a two-time All-American and scored 157 points (83 goals, 74 assists) as a forward.

“I think he could have played pro hockey at the level I played but he just decided to get into the real world,” said Rob of his brother who works for a contracting company and stays in the game by coaching youth hockey. “This [coaching professionally] is way more exciting but he gets paid more money,” said Rob with a smile.

Rob left NHU because he wanted to change his major and because he considered Salem State “a better hockey school.”

He tried to maintain a straight face as he said, “I have to say myself,” after being asked who the better looking twin is.

Miller certainly looked good offensively in his first professional season (2002-03) with the Jacksonville Barracudas of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League scoring 16 goals with 29 assists for 45 points in 60 games. He also had 130 penalty minutes.

He split the 2003-04 season between the Lakeland Loggerheads (WHA2) and the Knoxville Ice Bears (SEHL) and had 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) and 96 penalty minutes combined, remaining with the Ice Bears for the next two years as they joined the Southern Professional Hockey League.

Knoxville won the SPHL championship in 2005-06 with Miller scoring five goals and 20 assists in 56 games with 93 penalty minutes and adding two goals and an assist in eight playoff games.

At that point Miller decided to retire as a player. “There’s no money in it unless you’re a very good player which I wasn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t that caliber, so that’s why. That’s it. That’s all I wanted … a championship when I played.

“I told my mother who is a teacher [now retired after teaching a number of different grades in Staten Island Public Schools] in the beginning when I graduated college, I said I’ll play for four years. That was the fourth year. So….and we won on my birthday [April 12] so I was like it wasn’t going to get better than that so that was that,” he said.

Only it wasn’t. Fate interfered as it almost always does and placed Miller on the path toward Brooklyn.

His next stop, however, was Exeter, New Hampshire, a town of about 14,000 people approximately 50 miles north of Boston and 50 miles south of Portland, Maine. Miller was hired to coach the New Hampshire Freeze of the then-new Eastern Professional Hockey League but the team dropped out weeks before the season was to begin along with the Copper City (Rome, N.Y.) Chiefs turning a six-team league into the four-team EPHL familiar to fans of the Brooklyn Aces in 2008-09.

“I was up there recruiting and everything for like two months. Then that was done,” said Miller.

After coming back to this area Miller got a call from Chris Firriolo who was coaching the Aces at the time. Firriolo, now the head coach and team president of the FHL expansion New Jersey Outlaws after spending last season in the same roles with the Danbury Whalers, asked Miller if he wanted to play.

“I’m like, not really but I wanted to stay in hockey,” said Miller, “and I had actually passed up a graduate assistant, coaching and going to school job at Castleton [a Division Three School in Vermont] to coach [in the EPHL].” That was off the table ‘cause it was too late and all the other coaching jobs everywhere else were filled so it was either play or get a big boy job and I didn’t really want to do that so that’s the only reason why I played. The only reason. I had fun when I did play but I did not want to play.”

Miller, who was a player, captain and an assistant coach with the Aces, played in only 22 regular season games due to an injury. He managed to score 23 points (two goals, 21 assists, +26, 43 penalty minutes) in those games and had three assists in three playoff games as Brooklyn lost in the finals to the New Jersey Rockhoppers, two games to one, with all three games played in Brooklyn.

Ironically, a player who did his best to beat the Aces with five goals and two assists in that three-game final series, Chris Ferazzoli from Floral Park, N.Y., was signed by the Aviators for the upcoming season on August 6, 2011. The 31-year-old forward, 5-6, 165 pounds, scored 65 points (24 goals, 41 assists) for the Rockhoppers in only 36 regular season games that year, also netting five points for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League.

Ferazzoli scored 11 goals and added 42 assists for the SPHL’s Mississippi Surge in 63 games including playoffs in 2009-10 and saw limited action with the Augusta RiverHawks of the same league last year with three goals and eight assists in 14 games.

His production will be needed after Matt Puntureri was sold to the Outlaws on May 17, 2011 in a deal that Miller says he “couldn’t pass up.”

Puntureri, who led the Aviators in most offensive categories, finished in a tie with Tyler Fernandez of Thousand Islands for third place in league scoring with 67 points but had more goals, 27-23. He was also +29 during the regular season and tied for second in playoff scoring with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) along with Akwesasne’s Ahmed Mahfouz (seven goals, eight assists) and teammate Michael Thomson (two goals, 13 assists).

“I’m looking for a couple of bigger forwards up front that bang a bit more and I’m looking for-well, Punts is gone, we traded him-so I’m looking for some goal scoring,” said Miller who, at one time, considered going into teaching like his mother.

Miller’s father is a retired postal worker.

The goal production on the coach’s mind could vey well come from the signing of Matt Amado in late June. Amado, from Langley, British Columbia, played four years of Division One hockey with Notre Dame (2002-06) and has played professionally in the United League with the Chicago Hounds (22 goals, 27 assists in 76 games) in 2006-07 and in Canada, France and Australia.

Amado, 28 years old, 5- 11, 197 pounds joins defenseman K.C. Timmons as someone who has played on three continents. Thomson, who scored 18 goals and had 29 assists in 39 games for the Aviators last season, said that he feels he has a good chance to move up to the Double A Toledo Walleye of the East Coast Hockey League whose training camp he has been invited to. He played some games with the Aviators’ ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, West Virginia last year.

“Thomson is trying to play in the Coast. I think if he puts on some weight, puts on some muscle…yeah because he can play, he’s a good player, a smart player so you know, hopefully he can do what needs to be done to stay up there,” said Miller who also made it clear that Thomson is more than welcome to return to Brooklyn at any time.

Kevin Druce was left unprotected in the FHL draft because he decided to retire and become a corrections officer in his home town of Kingston, Ontario leaving a big gap to fill in the net.

“Obviously, if he was coming back to play and I didn’t protect him, it would be the stupidest coaching move any coach could ever make. You don’t get rid of a goalie like Kevin Druce for anybody. You just don’t. Not at this level,” said Miller.

Eddie Neville, who started in goal for the Aces in 2008-09 with a 2.97 goals against average , a .916 goals against average and one shutout is back, recovered from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season.Druce’s backup, Peter Dundovich, will also be in training camp which opens October 20, 2011 with physicals. Skating starts the next day and camp ends October 26, the day before the Aviators meet Akwesasne in Lewiston, Maine to open the season.

The defense is also up in the air. “We’re looking for some defensemen right now,” said Miller. “Rush [Jarrett, 6-5, 225 pounds, named to the All FHL team] will probably be in another camp someplace else so he may stick…he’s a big guy, he’s pretty good, he’s trying to go to the Coast.

“I got another defenseman coming in and a couple of other guys but…Inman’s going back to Laredo [Central Hockey League, Double A]. If nothing works out there he’ll probably be back but I can’t see him ending up back here. He’s a good player. He may actually end up in an American League [Triple A] camp to start this year.”

David Inman, 24, played two years for the U.S. National Under-18 team, 58 games for Yale University over four years and 25 games for the Aviators (five goals, eight assists) before being called up by the Elmira Jackals (ECHL) on January 13, 2011. From there, he was picked up by Laredo scoring a goal and five assists for the Bucks in 22 games.

Miller also searches for talent at the college level where he found Rush (Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts, Division Three) among others last year and the year before.

This year’s college crop includes 24-year-old defenseman Greg Eskedjian from Norwich University in Northfield Vermont (14 goals, 45 assists in 86 games), a six-footer weighing in at 186 pounds, center Stuart Stefan, 25, 5-11, 175 pounds, from Castleton State College, also in Vermont, where he scored 54 goals and had 56 assists in 103 games, center Joseph Harcharik, 23, from Division One Robert Morris University and defenseman Chris de Bruyn, 25 years old, 5-10, 185 pounds who played 103 games over the course of four years with SUNY-Fredonia and scored 13 goals with 42 assists.

Eskedjian and Stefan will both be attending the training camp of the Central League’s Texas Brahmas but have signed tryout agreements in Brooklyn if they don’t make it there.

It has all worked out very nicely so far for Miller and his team coming out of the Federal League’s inaugural season with a first-place finish, a 21-game winning streak, a birth in the playoff finals, three players named to the All FHL team and a Coach-of the-Year award which he is very proud of but which he would gladly trade for a playoff championship. “In a heartbeat,” he says.

About his upcoming wedding, Miller says, “I’m not nervous. I just want everything to kind of fall into place. It’s the hectic time now with the invitations coming back and all that stuff.”

Not nervous?

Sure coach, sure.

(This article was originally published at www.brooklynaviators.com)

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