Robert Mills can’t remember the last winter his Duluth home was without a hockey rink — complete with boards and lights — in its backyard.
When the weather turned cold enough to drop the puck, Gophers defenseman Dylan Mills’ family covered the expenses of broken windows from errant pucks and provided the neighborhood kids with a place to hang their breezers and skates.
“My favorite memory is of Dylan and his friend Matt Mathias. They must have been about 5 or 6,” said Kathy Mills, Dylan’s mother. “I looked out the window and they weren’t moving. There was Matt, at the top of his lungs singing the national anthem. Dylan just sat there, perfectly still like he always does.
“They stood there for the entire song. When it was over, they threw their helmets up and yelled, ‘Let’s play hockey.'”
Ever since receiving his first pair of skates — a set given to him by his grandfather before his second birthday — Mills has done more than just play hockey. He’s become a student of the game.
As an eighth grader, Mills combined his knowledge of the game and his skill to skate for East High School. By his junior year, Mills was named captain and skated to a 1995 Minnesota State High School League Championship with freshly placed screws in his hand from an injury in sectionals.
Greyhounds coach Mike Randolph said it was devotion like that landed Mills suitors such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
“A lot of kids these days go to practice, go home and forget about it,” Randolph said. “Dylan loves the game of hockey and plays for the love of the game.”
A dangerous love
At times, his love for the game has been tough. Three hockey run-ins over the years sent Mills to the bench with concussions.
The most recent accident occurred during his senior year of high school. After being hit in a game, a razzled Mills was taken to the locker room where he took on a new role.
“We came into the locker room and he was running around. He thought he was Batman,” Gophers defenseman and fellow East graduate Nick Angell said. “He’s like ‘I’m Batman. I’m going to sit in the Batmobile.'”
Mills pieced together a similar version.
“I was in the locker room and someone asked for my stick because it was broken. I was like, ‘Oh, you must have the Bat wand,'” Mills said. “I went to the showers and I’m like, ‘I’m off to the Bat cave.'”
Mills’ ability to come back from the concussions has bled over to his career at Minnesota.
Like Randolph, first-year Gophers coach Don Lucia said Mills is “one of the hardest working players on our team.
“He’s as coachable of a player that I’ve been around. I think that I would classify Dylan as a little bit of an overachiever. I mean that as a compliment.”
Minnesota’s junior co-captain anchors the defense. Although Mills recorded two points (one goal, one assist) through Minnesota’s first four games this season, Mills said he isn’t a defenseman who expects to score. He’d rather blend in with the Gophers defense.
“If you go and look back at the game and say, ‘Gee I didn’t even realize he was out there,’ that probably means I did my job,” Mills said.
Off the ice, Mills said his role isn’t quite as behind the scenes. Decorating his home with Christmas lights in mid-October takes Mills back to a time when he was breaking things near the old hockey rink at his parents’ house.
“(The Christmas lights are) the icicle ones. It took some time to put the lights up,” Mills said. “I hit my thumb with a hammer and broke a couple of shingles off the house.”
At least it wasn’t a window.
Sarah Mitchell covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]