The Red Deer Rebels will be mighty tickled if Jesse Miller can weave the same type of magic on the ice as off during his rookie Western Hockey League rookie season.
The 18-year-old Winnipeg product is an amateur magician, capable of performing coin and card tricks that defy reason.
“I’ve been doing it all my life, I’m been watching (magician/illusionists) Criss Angel and David Blaine for years,” Miller said on Wednesday, following a Rebels practice session at the Collicutt Centre.”
Whether it’s learning tricks from friends, the internet or from books . . . I like to pick up little things and then practise and learn them.
“It also goes along with juggling. I’m a pretty accomplished juggler, so if this whole hockey thing doesn’t turn out I can always join the circus in some sort of clown gig. Right now hockey is the main priority, but if I can entertain the guys with some tricks and juggling, it’s all fun.”
Miller left his box of tricks back home in Winnipeg, but needs only a looney and/or a deck of cards to show off.
“I can also get into levitation . . . just a whole whack of stuff,” he said. “I have a tool box full of (props). I could go about five hours with straight magic tricks.”
Truth be told, it was Miller’s hockey hands that impressed Randy Peterson to the point that the Rebels director of scouting/player development during the summer invited the six-foot-one, 175-pound forward to the Rebels training camp.
“He called me four or five times over the summer. He wanted to make sure I was coming to camp because I wasn’t listed by the Rebels,” said Miller. “I was also invited to camp by Saskatoon and Calgary, but Red Deer was the most interested. They kept phoning me and it was clear they wanted me. I thought, ‘yeah, Red Deer is a good program.’”
Peterson had words of encouragement for Miller when the Rebels camp opened.
“He came up to me and said ‘if you just play your game here, skate like you can and play like you did all last season, there should be a spot for you here.’ So far, I’ve done that,” said Miller.
Early on in camp, Miller wondered if he would adjust to the quicker pace.
“After the first skate, I went ‘whoa, is this what I’m going to have to get used to?’” I was a little shaky, was gripping my stick a little hard,” he said. “This was my first WHL camp. The first skate was shaky but after main camp I got used to the pace and really felt like I belonged out there during the preseason. I felt good.”
Miller appeared in 41 regular-season games with the midget AAA powerhouse Winnipeg Wild last season, scoring 20 goals and adding 30 assists in the process. The Wild finished 41-3 and captured the Manitoba title before falling to the Saskatoon Contacts in the western regionals.
“We had a great season. We didn’t finish as well as we wanted to but I was able to put up some points,” he said. “I think it’s really important to have a good season before you come to any junior camp. Having a great midget season was huge for me.”
Miller realizes he’ll be in tough to replicate his midget numbers as a Rebels rookie.
“I’m just going to try and play as well as I can defensively and offensively,” he said. “If I have a great offensive game I will want to match it with a great defensive game as well. If I continue to work hard good things will come. I’ll try not to take a shift off . . . just play the body and work hard.”
Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin is impressed with Miller’s physical dimensions and willingness to play in the high-contact areas.
“His work ethic and his size, those are the things he has going for him,” said Wallin. “He’s just a hard-working, gritty guy who we think is just going to continue to improve here as he continues to play at this level.
“He’s a bit raw and yet all the guys who come into this league are. He’s a big guy, he skates well and he has an element of grit to his game. We feel he will be a real good player for us down the road.”
The Rebels bench boss also likes Miller’s eagerness to learn the defensive side of the game.
“He’s learning to play the game at both ends of the rink, but he’s also a guy we hope will be able to bring some offence,” said Wallin. “He’s not afraid to go to the net and he has some skill to him and hopefully some finish. He had a good year in midget AAA last year and came in with the attitude that he was going to make our team. He and Bleacks (Conner Bleackley) both had a good camp and if those guys can produce for you it shows the importance of depth.”
Miller, who played all six preseason games — scoring once — and will likely be in the Red Deer lineup for the regular-season opener on Friday against the visiting Calgary Hitmen, clearly understands the importance of performing in both zones, particularly at the major junior level.
“Defence is just as important, if not more, than offence,” he said. “I have to work on my defensive game. I’ve kind of struggled with that in my career but I feel I can learn a lot here. The whole coaching staff is great.”
If the right winger didn’t make the grade with the Rebels, he was prepared to head back to Manitoba, to the junior A Winkler Flyers.
“Actually, me being here is almost like the back-up plan,” he said. “I had already signed with Winkler. I had everything set up, billets . . . everything. They were really good to me that way.”