Philadelphia native finds new home on the ice
Captain. A word synonymous with leader, earned through hard work and dedication. The letter ‘C’ adorns the jersey of someone who guides the team on and off the ice.
According to his coaches and teammates, senior forward Joaquin Rivera displayed these qualities to be named team captain of the NAU Ice Jacks Division III team.
“He is the definition of honor, commitment, perseverance and coachability,” said assistant coach Craig Maxwell. “Never say die, leave it all out there and give it all you got, 110 percent all the time.”
Rivera, a Philadelphia, Penn. native, began his hockey career early in life. He moved to Arizona at the age of five, and picked up roller blading with his mom. After Rivera saw people play hockey in a park, he decided he wanted to give it a try.
Hockey and the desert do not always mix, as many have emphatically stated. Rivera, along with help from his mom, made his hockey career in Arizona work.
At his high school, Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, Rivera and several friends started the hockey program. With the leadership of Rivera, Notre Dame Prep eventually became one of the top hockey programs in the state, winning the state championship Rivera’s senior year.
“I was a big part of that team, and it felt really good to help a team win that way,” Rivera said. “To play with guys that I’ve played with for four years and to win in the last year was the greatest memory, and it was such an amazing experience that I always look back on.”
After high school, Rivera looked to continue his hockey career, and began looking at colleges. From the beginning, NAU was near the top of his list.
“I came up here and took a tour of NAU and was hooked pretty quickly,” Rivera said. “As soon as I decided I was committed to come here, Coach Todd Schall called me, and he had definitely seen me before, and it all just tied in well together and it just seemed like a perfect fit.”
To go from the high school game to college athletics was like learning a brand new game. The first year at NAU for Rivera became a rude awakening on what to expect on the ice.
“I actually got cut my freshman year; I was the very last cut,” Rivera said. “I was really upset for a long while, and it was tough.”
Rivera kept his head up despite not making the squad. He went to all the practices, and looked forward to making the team, while helping out any way possible. With the hopes of practicing with the team becoming a long shot, Rivera knew all he needed was a chance.
“About a week or two later, I get a call saying ‘Bring your gear’,” Rivera said.
With a player sidelined due to injury, Rivera got the call he was waiting for. His chance arrived. Though on the roster, there were no guarantees he would play. With four full lines in front of him on the depth chart, effort every day was the only way Rivera would move up the list.
As the season progressed, his hard work was noticed by coaching staff, and by the end of the season, Rivera was on the third line. NAU played their way to the national tournament Rivera’s freshman year. Even then, the learning experiences for Rivera never stopped coming.
“At the national tournament, I tore my MCL,” Rivera said laughing. “It was tough, but it was definitely a learning experience that I’ll look back on.”
For the entire tournament, Rivera watched from the bench as his team finished sixth; the highest finish for the Ice Jacks at a national tournament. The finish led to the creation of a second team placed at the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division II level in 2009.
This season, the D-III Ice Jacks made the ACHA Pacific Regionals for the first time since 2009. Coming in as the No. 10 seed, NAU looked for an upset, but missed a chance to move on after a 4–2 loss vs. No. 3 seed Iowa State, ending their season.
Regardless, Rivera’s teammates saw how important it was for him to get NAU back to the top.
“He’s a big leader,” said junior forward and alternate captain Zach Duda. “He helps us a lot and calms us down. He’s there for fun, but mostly he’s there for business too. That’s the most important thing.”
Senior forward Jack Stride, who has played with Rivera for a few years, can attest to Rivera’s hard-worker mentality.
“You want to know that your captain is going to have your back,” Stride said. “You want to know that your captain is going to go out and work as hard he possibly can every shift. He’s always out there giving everything he’s got.”
While apart of the NAU hockey program for five years, Rivera knows what it is like to be one of the young players on the team. From the very beginning of the season, Rivera told the young players what to expect.
“In the locker room between periods, he really does explain to the players what we expect,” Stride said. “You have to expect to be hit and you have to expect to hit. He’s definitely a mentor to the younger players.”
Head coach Kris Walsh, in his third season as coach of Rivera and the D-III team, has seen the highs and lows of this team.
“He’s had to be above a captain, and that’s been tough,” Walsh said. “He has had to show these kids what it’s like to play college hockey and he’s done an exceptional job.”
From a local park to Jay Lively Arena, where his time is winding down, Rivera has experienced a roller coaster career. He has won a state championship at the high school level, and when was a member of the Ice Jacks last season when NAU won two games.
“He follows our motto very closely,” Walsh said. “Three things we strive [for] are dedication, respect and hard work. He’s been dedicated and loyal to this program for five years. He’s very respectful, on and off the ice. He communicates with the referees and coaches in a respectful manner, and he’s always working hard on and off the ice to make sure his grades are in good standings so he can play hockey every time we need him to go.”