VALENCIA, Pa. - The pro shop at the Ice Connection in Valencia, Pa., is unusually crowded for a Tuesday morning. The cause is easily explained - East Palestine native and New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller is signing autographs for a throng of young boys who, if their hard work plays off, may end up playing in the NHL one day. About halfway through the session, however, a young man, much larger than anyone else in line, bursts out of the pro shop with a huge grin on his face.
"I've finally gotten his autograph!" Matt Miller shouts to nobody in particular, waving a signed picture of his older brother in the air.
Despite frequently colliding on the ice, the Millers have kept their sense of humor off it.
With dozens of future NHL hopefuls watching, J.T. and Matt Miller held a workout in Valencia, a small borough about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh. While the drills were intense and often wowed the spectators, the Millers kept the mood light with jokes and cheers whenever somebody scored a goal.
"Thursday is the battle day," J.T. says. "Today was more about skills. When we're doing battles, it gets a lot more competitive. It all becomes pure ego at that point."
J.T. Miller, as the Ice Connection advertising flyers will inform you, is the 2011 first-round draft choice of the Rangers. At just 20 years old, J.T. has already seen action in 26 NHL games, scoring two goals and two assists. He has become an icon for the local youth hockey scene, a testament of how anyone can reach the big stage no matter where they're from.
"We're the first to play hockey from East Palestine, I think," J.T. says of he and his brother. "My dad saw the Pens win the cup in '92, before I was born. He wanted me to play, so I played. The closest rink to us was in Pittsburgh so we travelled all around. They sacrificed so much for us."
While it's difficult to match a blossoming NHL career, Matt has taken it all in stride. At 17, Matt is playing with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League this season, just as his older brother once did with the USA Developmental Team in Ann Arbor, Mich. While their brotherly rivalry is often amicable, the competition between the two on the ice seems to aid the younger brother greatly.
"There's definitely a higher tempo," Matt said. "It helps me get ready to come into the lower level games. I mean, he plays in the NHL so obviously he can teach me a few things."
There's not likely to be a better mentor than J.T., who has been watching Matt skate as long as he can remember. On Tuesday, J.T. was the leader for drills, often manuevering past orange cones and blasting shots toward fellow Pittsburgh resident and Michigan State goalie Jake Hildebrand. When Matt's development became a topic of discussion, J.T. offered high praise.
"He's a late bloomer," J.T. said. "When he was younger he didn't really have the tools or the size. Now it's just a matter of time."
The two brothers already have a bond that most professional athletes rarely attain - it's not often that siblings train on such a high level together. By practicing on the same ice for years, the Millers have adopted an unusually close working relationship that benefits both of them.
"We never got to play on the same team," J.T. says, "but we always know what to expect. The teammate chemistry is a bit different than this. It's become a hockey sense."
It helps that J.T. has been in Matt's shoes before. Unlike in Canada or parts of the Northeast, ice rinks can be difficult to find in the Midwest, specifically in the summer. The Phantoms have allowed both brothers to realize the amount of dedication and effort it takes just to get a shot at the NHL.
"I've been doing online school," Matt says. "I lived up in Michigan last year and it was easier with my schedule. With the Phantoms I get to work on fundamentals and conditioning. We get to travel and meet new people and it becomes part of a family."
While the journey to the NHL is certainly a difficult one, many young athletes have decided to lace up and skate toward that goal. Evidenced by the hordes of young players who lined up for autographs with J.T., hockey is as popular as ever in the Ohio Valley, something that both Millers have noticed and encourage.
"My draft year was really huge," J.T. says. "We had a lot of guys who went off to play everywhere. I think all the attention really helps. I think seeing the Pens win the cup really helps players push themselves even more. All these kids want to do is keep getting better and better."