With family watching, Miller flourishes in rookie season

The Gophers rookie’s family is in full force at every women’s hockey game.

Bridget Haeg

At a Minnesota’s women’s hockey game earlier this season, Mary Ann Miller, dissatisfied with an official’s call, made her voice heard.

“It was obvious it should have been a penalty shot, and I’m big-mouthed, and I hollered, ‘Penalty shot!’ ” Miller said. “And (coach Laura Halldorson) said, ‘Grandma, I don’t know who you are, but you sure know your hockey.’ “

Apparently, it runs in the family.

Miller is the grandmother of Minnesota freshman defender Anya Miller, representing approximately one-tenth (give or take a few cousins) of the Miller clan that has cheered on the rookie in her first season.

Only halfway into the season, Anya Miller has earned her way into top-ranked Minnesota’s starting lineup, skating with – among other former and probably future Olympians – Lyndsay Wall, Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell.

Paired with sophomore defender Wall, Anya Miller has helped to anchor a defensive corps allowing an average of .93 goals per game.

And the pressure that comes with stepping into such a high-profile role has made the support of her family all the more welcome.

Mary Ann Miller sits in a long row of relatives at every game, the grandparents wearing easily distinguishable Minnesota sweatshirts with “Miller” stamped on the back, a Christmas gift from Anya Miller’s mother, Tori Miller.

“They asked for those sweatshirts, and I’m like, ‘Mom, no. I don’t want to look stupid. It’s my first year,’ ” Anya Miller said.

But in choosing a school so close to home, it’s not as if she wasn’t asking for it.

For the Ramsey, Minn., native, having her family close became a key criterion when choosing a college hockey program.

Van Miller, Anya Miller’s father, said he could not understand her relative uninterest in making official visits to such top-ranked hockey programs as Dartmouth and Harvard.

“All along, she wanted to go to (Minnesota), but she didn’t tell us that until we got right down to the very end,” Van Miller said. “I told Anya, ‘They wouldn’t let me park cars at Harvard.’ “

The family sought the help of former Gophers men’s hockey defenseman Paul Martin, a family friend.

“I remember when he was making the decision, he only wanted to go to (Minnesota) because Paul was a homebody,” Van Miller said. “So we actually asked Paul for help going through this.”

It looks as if Martin gives good advice.

With her decision to join the Gophers, Anya Miller is getting the chance to battle the opposition’s best line while receiving constant instruction from Wall.

“When we’re out on the ice, she’s always talking to me. She’ll tell me what pass to make, when to make it,” Anya Miller said. “So she does a lot of the work for me.”

While Wall’s 28 points in 16 games might overshadow Anya Miller’s two, Anya Miller said she is comfortable with her style of play.

For Minnesota (14-0-2, 12-0-2 WCHA), it’s worked out just fine.

“She’s more of a defensive defenseman,” assistant coach Brad Frost said. “We didn’t need somebody to score a bunch of goals. We needed somebody who could get the puck up to our forwards.”

Her family could see it took her a couple games to adjust to the pressure.

Van Miller remembers the Gophers’ season opener at North Dakota. For the first time, he said, he saw his daughter nervous.

“I’m watching her skate the first couple of shifts, and I’m thinking, ‘Whose daughter is that?’ ” Van Miller said. “She’s stiff, and she couldn’t wait to get off the ice.”

A father-daughter conversation after the game revealed Anya Miller’s anxiety, Van Miller said.

“She said, ‘You know, Dad Ö I looked to my right – here’s Lyndsay Wall, Natalie Darwitz, Krissy Wendell, and there’s Kelly Stephens. And there’s Jody Horak behind me. I couldn’t breathe,’ ” Van Miller said.

But, that’s where the family support comes in handy.

“When I’m a grandparent, I’ll probably go watch my grandkids,” Anya Miller said. “So it’s nice that they all come to support me.”