ITASCA COUNTY, Minn. — In the hockey world, the blue line is where the neutral zone ends. Defensemen are known as “blueliners” as they guard that line at one end of the rink, to protect their goalie, and set up on the blue line at the other end of the rink, to keep the puck in the offensive zone.
In the law enforcement world, the blue line has long been used as a symbol for the police. The line of “men (and women) in blue” keeps the peace, and that thin line separates civil society from a descent into violence and chaos.
Over the last 30-plus years, former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner Kris Miller has done some impressive work on both types of blue lines. Unlike goalies and forwards, whose on-ice responsibilities are somewhat limited, defensemen do a little bit of everything, and that is a role Miller embraces as an Itasca County sheriff’s deputy.
“You’re not only law enforcement, you’re a psychologist, you’re a doctor, you’re a therapist,” said Miller, 51, who studied some criminal justice at the University of Minnesota Duluth and began carrying a badge not long after he retired from pro hockey in 2002. “In this world, it seems like you have to solve everybody’s issues, and it’s become tough. But at the same time, I love it.”
Bulldogs' first Mr. Hockey
In 1987 at Greenway High School in Coleraine, Minn., Miller became the Raiders’ first Mr Hockey recipient, given each year to Minnesota’s top senior hockey player. More importantly, he helped the Greenway — which was atop the state hockey polls for much of the season — break a 17-year state tournament trip drought and capture third place in the old one-class days.
“We had a good bunch of guys all the way through youth hockey,” Miller said. “We knew that we were a special group and we just kept at it. We were fortunate enough to make the state tournament, and the best part of it was we beat Grand Rapids to go.”
UMD coach Mike Sertich won the recruiting battle for Miller, giving the school its first Mr. Hockey. But in truth, Miller’s selection of UMD was all but predetermined. In the mid-1980s when the Bulldogs were NCAA tournament regulars, a few members of the team would skate in Grand Rapids in the summers and Miller, then a peewee, hung around the rink and became friends with notables like Jim Johnson, Norm Maciver and Jim Tonianato. When he would come to Duluth for UMD games in the winter, Miller was often invited into the home locker room to see his friends.
“I was always going to be a Bulldog,” Miller said.
UMD was a middle-of-the-pack team in the WCHA during Miller’s four years in a Bulldogs sweater, never earning home ice in the conference and usually hovering around .500. But Miller was always a steadying force on the back end, and showed on-ice versatility similar to the many hats he currently wears in law enforcement.
“He was probably one of those guys that we call a ‘tweener.’ He could be a good, solid, stay-at-home defenseman but he also had the skating ability and the passing and vision to move up and be an extra attacker,” Sertich recalled. “He had good size and was a good athlete. We were fortunate enough to get him and he had a good career at UMD.”
Pucks for a paycheck
Originally drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, Miller did not get to the NHL, but played professionally for more than a decade, first in the North American minor leagues, then for five years in Europe.
“The first thing you’d notice when you watched Miller was he was a really strong skater,” said Dale Jago, who now coaches Duluth Denfeld’s boys high school team, and was a teammate of Miller’s on defense for three seasons at UMD and for a season with the Manchester (England) Storm. “He did everything at a pretty high level. His shot was good, and he could move the puck, but his skating ability was what put him at the top of the chart, and he was strong as a bull.”
One of his minor league stints on this side of the ocean was in the Twin Cities, for the Minnesota Moose during their two seasons of existence. Miller always figured he would be a teacher and coach after he was done playing, but leaving a Moose practice one day, he stuck up a conversation with a Minnesota state trooper outside their rink, and expressed an interest in law enforcement. Miller eventually went on a ride-along, and found his life after hockey.
Connected in the community
After two years of training at a technical school in Alexandria, Minn., and stints working in a few county jails, Miller came home to Itasca County in 2005 and has been protecting and serving since then. He admitted he has not been on skates in a few years due to a pair of bad knees, but instead has been playing the role of hockey dad.
Miller’s son Christian was a regular for the Greenway team that made a run to the Class A state title game in 2019, and is committed to St. Cloud State. A divorced father of three and grandfather of one, Miller acknowledged that law enforcement is in the spotlight these days, with unrest in many American cities and calls for fundamental changes in the role of the police. In the relative peace and quiet of rural Minnesota, where crime rates are lower, Miller said he will likely never interact with 98% of the county’s residents, unless it involves a speeding ticket, and the crime they deal with usually involves 1 to 1.5% of the population that they unfortunately see over and over again.
“I’ve been at it for 15 years now, and it’s changed quite a bit. I always said it was 90% paperwork and 10% fun, and now it’s like 98% paperwork and 2% fun,” he said, noting with pride the work his department does in the schools, with fundraisers and helping kids get a better impression of the police in their communities. “There are a lot of good people out there. It’s tough times right now for law enforcement because they’re targeting us a little bit, but especially up north, there are a lot of good people here.”