Petr Sykora’s return to the Devils made headlines, but he wasn’t the only player to crack New Jersey’s roster against long odds Wednesday.
28-year-old Brad Mills arrived to the rink that morning to find his number assigned in training camp, 48, changed to 11.
It didn’t take a political science degree from Yale to figure out what that means, although Mills has one.
“Everyone’s been telling me it’s a good sign,” Mills said “If you can get below 29, it’s a good omen.”
The Ivy league graduate took a circuitous route to the NHL, including an amateur tryout with the Devils minor-league team and a stint in the ECHL, but he always believed he would make it.
“I guess it was a feeling,” Mills said. “It’s easy to talk yourself out of it when you find yourself in the ECHL, but it’s a development league and you’re there to get better – that’s the way I approached it. I knew deep down I was capable of playing here.”
Mills made his NHL debut last season due to an injury-decimated Devils team, but strived to control his own fate this season.
“You don’t want to be in Albany waiting for someone else to get hurt or to play poorly. That’s not the position you want to be in,” Mills said. “You want to be the guy that comes into camp and wins the job.”
Mills did just that.
His brand of physical play – in his own words, to make himself “miserable to play against” – helped to impress new coach Pete DeBoer and GM Lou Lamoriello. Mills showed his grit by fighting Flyers’ Zac Rinaldo in the team’s 2-1 preseason loss to Philadelphia for running teammate Zach Parise. He also provides the Devils some versatility as a right-handed center for the Devils, who lost first-line pivot Travis Zajac to an offseason Achilles injury.
“I think the way he plays helps him,” Lamoriello said. “He competes.”
Mills knows his Yale degree will ensure he has no shortage of options for the future, options he’s seen many of his peers already pursue. Still, hockey remains his dream.
“I have a lot of friends that are working in finance or doing various things but this was always my dream,” Mills said. “This has always been my passion, this is what gets me out of bed in the morning. All I’ve ever wanted to do.”
There’s life after hockey, he recognizes. But that can wait.
“I figured I can always go work in finance or whatever the job may be but you can’t always come back to pro hockey," Mills said, "so I figured I’d give it my best shot while I still could.”