When Jamie Rivers awoke on March 9, 2006, he was a Detroit Red Wing. By 2 p.m., the National Hockey League trading deadline, he was acquired by the Phoenix Coyotes. At 4 p.m., he was on a plane to Columbus, Ohio, to play for his new team that night, leaving his wife, Shannon, in Detroit to handle a 5-year-old, 2-year-old twins and a pair of big dogs.
That’s just the way things work for a professional hockey family."This is our life,” Shannon says."You do what you have to do.”
After nearly two decades playing for dozens of different teams in several leagues, Jamie now spearheads the defense of the Chicago Wolves—when he’s not being a father to daughter Karson, 8, fraternal twin sons Ashton and Braydon, 5, and 5-week-old daughter McKinnon. The family now lives in St. Louis but has made a trip up to see the Wolves and spend some quality time with dad.
It can get tough, Jamie acknowledges, juggling hockey and family, but he wouldn’t give it up for anything."It’s almost like a high, coming home after practice,” he says."It’s an awesome feeling to know that, whatever I’ve done that day, how good or bad I’ve played, they don’t care, (the kids) are so happy to see me. That’s the best part.”
Wolves center Steve Martins also knows something about commuting between Chicago and St. Louis, in the opposite direction from his teammate. Steve’s wife, Jennifer, has lived in Chicago for six years, while Steve at one point played for the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. For the past three seasons, Steve has lived in Chicago carving out a niche with the Wolves, and the Martinses have developed a schedule for parenting 5-year-old son Isac and 3-year-old daughter Isabelle.
It works something like this: Jennifer, a skating instructor, works from 6-9 a.m. After a quick kid-swap and drop-off, Steve gets to the Wolves practice rink for a 10 a.m.-noon session. Then he’s back to pick up Isac and Isabella before Jennifer goes to teach her afternoon lessons. The family is reunited around 6 p.m.
It works—as long as the Wolves aren’t on the road. Then things get really tricky, Steve says."It’s a tough profession for a single guy, let alone for a family. Once you have kids, especially once they start school, having to move the kids around, it’s quite tough.”
On the flip side, Steve adds, pro hockey lets him spend more time with Isac and Isabelle than other professions. He enjoys a lengthy off-season that has him off work for the summer. Even during the season, he gets home from practice at 1 p.m. and has the entire afternoon to spend with his kids.
“I’m very, very blessed and very fortunate to be living at home and playing hockey at home,” Steve says.
Kids on ice
Karson, Ashton and Braydon Rivers all love to skate and McKinnon will likely follow. But right now, they’re a bit jaded about their dad’s instructional ability.
“I had to put them into lessons,” Jamie laughs."They wouldn’t listen to me. I tried to take them skating and they were like,‘What do you know, Dad?'”
None of the three older kids are in hockey leagues yet, though the twins will probably start this summer. (Karson prefers pure skating to hockey, though she only wears hockey skates.) They’re small but fierce—you don’t want to mess with a Rivers kid on the ice.
“They get the game real good, and so when they watch a game, they will emulate it almost to perfection,” Jamie says."Which is bad, because they literally crush each other with hits and go after other kids, not in a mean way, but they’ll say, well, look at Daddy or so-and-so, finishing their hits.”
With a hockey-playing dad and a figure-skating-instructor mom, ice sports are a staple at the Martins’ house, too. Isac doesn’t have hockey on the brain at the moment—he wants a red Power Ranger costume and to watch Nigel Marven’s dinosaur shows—but when the mood strikes, he can be intense, Steve says. For a period, he insisted on playing hockey in the basement every day. Isabelle, on the other hand, takes after her mother and is learning to figure skate.
But Steve’s favorite moment with his kids on the ice came when Isac and Isabelle joined him in celebrating the Wolves 2008 Calder Cup championship win."I can’t explain how great it was to see them running around, maybe not understanding it all, but to be a part of the celebration,” Steve says."That just meant the world. And now they keep asking,‘Are we gonna do the Calder Cup thing again, with the ice and the confetti?'”
Steve certainly hopes so.
Being a pro athlete can get one zip-coded around the country plenty. Steve Martins has played for six NHL teams; Jamie Rivers beats him with seven. Recently, though, each player did a stint very far away—Jamie spent a season in Russia; Steve played for a Finnish team.
From Jyväskylä, Martins’ only visual communication with then-newborn Isac was through a laptop video-chat. He laughs about it now,"I swear, I think Isac for the first year or two of his life thought dad was a cartoon character.”
Isac—and Isabelle, and the Rivers kids—would have to get used to seeing their dad on a bigger screen than a laptop. All Wolves games are broadcast on Comcast cable, and the families are sure to watch if they can’t make the arena."It doesn’t faze them because they’ve grown up with it,” says Jennifer Martins."Isabelle will run up to the TV:‘Hi, Daddy! Hi, Daddy!'”
Ashton and Braydon Rivers may be even more blase. Accustomed to seeing Jamie on commercials and televised charity events, the twins finally got a shock when they found their dad in a hockey video game."That was it,” Shannon says."That’s the first time they showed any interest in hockey whatsoever. And then they thought everything was dad in a video game!”
The boys affirm that Jamie is, of course, on their teams’ rosters—second only to the New Jersey Devils’ Brendan Shanahan.
At the Allstate
On game day at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, the Rivers family—minus Jamie—gathers in a back room with snacks and a TV set. Karson heads out to the seats and parks herself up close to the action; the boys tussle on the carpet inside until the pyrotechnics show is over.
The Martins family can’t be here today; Steve is out with a knee injury and one of the kids is sick. But on an ordinary day, Isac and Isabelle love getting in close with the team and exploring the arena. Isac will hop on the team bus occasionally (only after wins) and Isabelle likes to raid the locker room for bubble gum.
“They love going to the rink,” Jennifer Martins says."At games, they have no fear of people and running around. The fans come to the kids, they bring them candy. (The kids) think it’s their second house.”
At the game, the Wolves lose a heartbreaker to the Rochester Americans, 4-3, their third in a row. Over the next week and a half, though, they’ll take five out of seven, improving to 31-27-2-1. They’ve never had a losing season and have missed only one playoff (in 2006).
There’s an upside either way. As nice as the long off-season is,"hopefully we don’t get that long—it means we’ve done real well in the playoffs,” Jamie says."But if they don’t work out, then you’ve got a solid couple of months at home.”
Into the unknown
Jamie still wants another trip back to the NHL, while Steve is anticipating that next Calder Cup. But as much as they’d like to play forever, the 34-year-old Jamie and 36-year-old Steve are veterans nearing a day when they’ll have to turn in their sticks.
“It’ll be such a change in our life,” says Jennifer Martins."It’s our 11th season together.… I don’t think I’m looking forward to him being done with it because he likes it so much.” The moment will be bittersweet—they love playing professional hockey, but there will likely be more time for family after retirement. They may move on to coaching positions, or do something else entirely.
But the most important thing for Steve now is fatherhood."It’s everything and more,” he says."I can’t tell you enough how great it is. The kids wake up in the night and come to my room and I wake up to them.… It just makes everything worthwhile. I can’t imagine people understanding, until they actually have kids, just how much love you get out of it.”
And whatever Jamie does next, he wants to make sure he can spend as much time as possible with Shannon and the kids."We’ll see,” he says."We always just sort of make it work.”
It does seem to be working out. The day after this interview, Jamie was named the sixth captain in Wolves history.
His pack is proud.
Darren McRoy is a Chicago Parent intern and a junior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.