Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Justin Milo recently returned to the Gwinnett Gladiators after being in training camp with the team. Milo, a rookie, has helped resuscitate the Gladiators after a disastrous December.
Circumstances in Justin Milo’s life haven’t always been easy.
But on the ice, things are simpler.
It’s the way he plays the game. It’s the way Gwinnett Gladiators’ head coach Jeff Pyle played the game.
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In an unprecedented compliment, Pyle said Milo thinks like he did.
“He’s been really good in a lot of phases that I didn’t know how good he was going to be,” said Pyle, a gifted forward who eclipsed the 100-point mark four times as a professional. “Like being able to think the game. Think the way I think, I guess. To where he’s cheating to the spots I need him to cheat to. Or anticipate, if you like that word.
“That makes me give him opportunities because he thinks the game the way I do.”
Milo recognized the similarities when he arrived in Gwinnett in October.
“I could tell when I was here for training camp that I liked Coach Pyle’s style of hockey,” Milo said. “It’s simple, which is kind of my game. Never passing up a shot, finishing checks — that’s kind of the stuff I’ve always done and that happens to be his style of hockey, too.
“So I kind of get a chuckle when I hear him say certain things. I’m like, ‘You know, I’ve thought that my whole life.’”
Pyle signed Milo this summer, knowing he was taking a chance. And not caring.
First, Milo had been playing pro baseball for the New York Yankees’ farm club in Charleston, S.C., since February.
“It was a really tough decision (leaving the minors),” Milo said. “I love both sports. But with Charleston I was kind of a reserve outfielder and I just kind of felt like I took baseball as far as I could and I wanted to pursue professional hockey.”
Second, there were questions surrounding his departure from the University of Vermont hockey team during his junior season.
“His agent called me and told me about him,” Pyle said. “He told me the kid was, I don’t know, not a live wire, but just that he had some problems in college.
“I don’t give a (rip) what happened in college. It’s not really a big deal to me as long as the kid comes here and realizes that he (messed) up.”
Pyle was, as always, exceedingly frank with Milo before signing the fellow Minnesotan.
“I called him right out the first time I talked to him and he told me, ‘No one’s been that honest with me before,’” Pyle said. “I just wanted him to know this could be a good spot if you’re doing things right.”
Milo signed with the Gladiators and was here for training camp. But the team was stacked at the start of the season and the 23-year-old rookie was released.
“He came here and he looked pretty good in camp,” Pyle said. “He scored well and did some things well. Then just because of the numbers thing, he kind of got caught in the shuffle there.”
Milo was home for less than a week when the Alaska Aces picked him up. He started the season in Anchorage, but after playing just two games, was once again let go.
He went home again before getting a call from South Carolina on Thanksgiving.
“I was home for a few weeks, just trying to work out, stay in shape and catch a break,” Milo said. “And I got on with South Carolina, with the help of some friends and baseball people.”
Milo was with the Stingrays for about a month, playing 12 games, when he was waived — again due to lack of room on the roster, not any problems with him personally.
At the same time, Gwinnett was mired in a franchise-record losing streak. Pyle was short players and needed to mix things up, spark some kind of resurgence.
When he got a second chance to have Milo on the roster, he jumped at it.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Pyle said. “He’s fit in in a lot of places. He does a lot of things well. He’s defensively solid. He’s learning, but he’s solid. Offensively he’s chipped in with some big goals. He’s got a nose for the game.
“And he’s a pretty good kid. Whatever rap he had before was a bit of a bum rap. I’m not saying the kid didn’t (mess) up, but not enough to where he wouldn’t deserve a second chance. At this or any other level really.”
Milo was dismissed from Vermont’s team in a sudden move that he said came out of the blue.
“I was never really given a reason why,” Milo said. “I think it had to do with baseball.”
Milo, who was drafted by the Yankees in 2009, also played baseball at Vermont.
“In all honesty, I had a five-minute conversation with the coach and he said we think that we’re going to go our separate ways,” Milo said. “He said the captains were all in agreement about it. And I lived with those guys and they said that they really had no idea that that was going to happen.
“So I went from being first line to not playing one weekend and then the following Monday I was off the team.”
It’s a topic Milo said he hates talking about. But he wasn’t at all truculent when the subject came up. He wasn’t rude or even abrupt. His biggest problem with it came from the fact that many ugly rumors swirled about the reason for his leaving.
“It was completely out of the blue and I didn’t know what to tell people,” Milo said. “With me not saying anything … people can say whatever they want to say.”
Which made some coaches skeptical when it came to signing the fleet-footed forward.
Pyle isn’t the only one who found Milo’s reputation to be unfounded.
“The South Carolina coach (Cail MacLean) actually said when he told me I was going to go to Gwinnett that it wasn’t true,” Milo said.
Pyle has used Milo in virtually every situation and since his arrival the team has a 5-1-1-1 record. A drastic improvement over a disastrous December.
“I don’t know what happened (in college),” Pyle said. “I heard from guys that they didn’t like him. But everything I’ve seen about the kid, he keeps kind of quiet. He seems to be getting along with everybody here. I haven’t seen any problems.
“He’s been successful, too, which helps. But he’s obviously buying into the team concept, which I think was part of his rap.”
Playing whatever role he’s asked is one of the things Pyle likes best about Milo.
“This year my goal is just to show coaches that I’m willing to work hard and I’m a good kid,” Milo said. “I just want to help the team win and whatever role I’ve got, I’ve just got to try to do the best I can in it.”
Milo has scored a couple big goals since his return to the Gladiators and quickly picked up the systems.
“He’s that type of guy that you put him around the net and he finds pucks,” Pyle said. “He doesn’t question anything and you can tell he’s paying attention. You can see him getting better in the systems. That’s how you know when guys are paying attention and working hard.”
For Milo, he’s happy to have found a home again in Gwinnett after a somewhat turbulent ride.
“It does take a toll on your confidence,” Milo said. “At times you feel like you’re unappreciated, but it feels good when you find that right fit and spot you enjoy coming to.
“It’s hard to play well and it’s hard to be the best you can be when you’re not enjoying yourself. So when you find a coach or a program that’s good for you, then you really appreciate it. So far Gwinnett’s been like that.”