All in the family for Pacific Palisades’ Rivera family
It’s a long way from Pacific Palisades to the far northern and western reaches of New York State.
Hockey battles that once took place on the Rivera family driveway in Southern California migrated east – far east – this past season when for the first time anyone can remember, brothers opposed each other in NCAA Division III games in the SUNYAC conference.
The older brother, Jake – the oldest of Rick and Dana Rivera’s four children – started the Rivera family’s foray into hockey nearly 20 years ago. His aunt babysat for then-NHL player (and now coach) Kirk Muller during his days playing in Toronto, Florida and Dallas.
“Every time he came to town he got us tickets, sent us sticks and jerseys – he started it all off,” said Jake, a 1991 birth year who soon enrolled in Mini-Mites at one of Southern California’s long-gone rinks in Sylmar. “My family signed me up, but they didn’t know anything about it. It was still so new, but as the oldest, I was on the trail-blazing path.”
The Rivera’s third child and second boy, Luke – a ’94 – also caught the hockey bug, and it wasn’t long before he was following in his older brother’s footsteps, and sometimes stepping on his toes.
“He was always teaching me stuff in the driveway,” Luke said. “We had a couple of fights along the way.”
Their age difference prevented Jake and Luke from playing together growing in California. Jake mainly played for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings before going to prep school at Tilton (N.H.) School for two years and playing two years of juniors, finishing with the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack.
College was next, and Jake chose Potsdam State University in upstate New York, roughly 2,800 miles from home. To put the distance into perspective, it takes nearly nine hours to fly to the closest major cities (Ottawa and Montreal).
Luke played for the West Valley Wolves, the Jr. Kings and the California Heat. He, too, attended prep school, in Pomfret, Conn., then played for the Jr. Wolfpack.
When it came time to pick a college, he had an advantage Jake hadn’t had … Jake.
“I was lucky enough to have enough experience and knowing about the programs, just to be able to get him information,” Jake said. “He didn’t go in blind anywhere.”
Said Luke: “I thought about going to Potsdam, but Fredonia (State University) stuck out to me. I visited and found I loved the place and the people. It was probably a better step to go my own route.
“And it was better to beat him than anything.”
That brings us to Nov. 7 in Potsdam. The host Bears edged Fredonia, their SUNYAC rivals from 325 miles to the west, 4-2. Jake Rivera, now a senior, picked up an assist.
But the finish wasn’t as notable as the start.
“It was good for both schools to be part of the Rivera rivalry,” Potsdam coach Chris Bernard said. “Credit (Fredonia coach) Jeff (Meredith). He said, ‘Start the 23s.’ Everyone was proud and both boys played so well.
“We went to Fredonia (on Jan. 30), and it was the same thing. ‘You start your 23, I’ll start mine.’ It was nice everyone could recognize how nice and how unique it was.”
It’s a memory like no other for the brothers.
“It was very cool playing against him,” said Jake, who had a career-best 20 points in 26 games this season. “He was close with numerous guys on our team, and he also played with three or four guys on my team in juniors. So it was memorable for him because not only was he facing his brother, but also some good friends.”
Added Luke, a freshman: “It was definitely a special moment. Growing up, I never thought I’d play against him.
“We won one, and they won one. I scored in the second game against them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Luke had experienced playing with a family member previously. He and the family’s youngest child, Nick, had spent part of a season playing juniors with the North American Hockey League’s Wenatchee Wild. Nick now captains the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League and has committed to play at NCAA Division I Minnesota State University.
Jake and Luke are mindful that their meetings had added meaning for their parents.
“It’s special for us, but that’s probably made it for them,” Jake said. “Everything we could do is a credit to them. My dad was not a parent who wasn’t concerned with our goals or points – it was how hard did we work?”
The games were special, Rick said, and they rekindled decades of memories.
“It was cool to watch, but it’s emotional,” he said. “It makes you relive hundreds of hours in the driveway or playing knee hockey or taking them to stick times. I’d take Luke with me to watch Jake’s in-house practices and soon he’d want to skate.
“They loved stick time. They’d play sideways between the blue lines, 3-4-year-olds up to 7-8-year-olds. No coaches, no parents, they’d figure it out on their own. It takes you back to those days seeing them play in college.”
Along the brothers drew further inspiration from their mom.
Dana Rivera was a picture of health in her early 40s – exercising daily times per week, not drinking or smoking – when she suffered a stroke. The devastating event, however, has turned into a positive.
After spending nearly a month in an intensive care unit and then a stroke center, Dana returned home in a wheelchair. Yet she attacked her rehabilitation and soon was walking. As her strength and stamina increased, so, too, did her desire to help others fighting the same battle.
“She runs several support groups at several hospitals,” Rick said. “They look at her and say, ‘You had a stroke?’ She’s such a terrific communicator and such a compassionate person that she just draws people to her.”
Their mother’s recovery and zest for helping others left a substantial impression on the brothers.
“She’s a warrior,” Jake said. “She’s accepted what happened and made it a positive situation by helping other families. She doesn’t ever stop. As much as we want to credit our dad, that ability to work through tough times comes from mom. None of us would have done any of the stuff we have without them.”
Added Luke: “That was something that really pushed all of us as a family to work harder, and it drew us closer. We learned not to take life for granted, and it showed us how short life can be. It has made a huge impact on my life.
“Even through her struggles, she supported us. I want to make her prouder.”
Jake has taken on his mom’s zeal for helping others.
“He wanted to be involved in making the campus better and initiated a lot of school spirit and pride,” said Bernard. “He made a lot of significant contributions to our program, not just on the ice, but how much he cared off it. He initiated some T-shirt sales and donated money toward breast cancer. He was at the forefront of beginning military appreciation and autism awareness nights.
“He wasn’t just about himself.”
Meredith sees those same attributes in Luke.
“He’s a great kid and he has a smile on his face every day,” Meredith said. “From the day he got here, he has fit right in and encouraged others. We couldn’t be happier with him.”
— Chris Bayee