By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Stefan Rivard admits now he didn’t know anything about Atlantic City four years ago.
Rivard was a veteran forward for the Birmingham Bulls after the 2000-2001 season when it was announced the team would be moving to New Jersey. It was not until August that the team had a name or hired a coach.
Most of the Bulls had scattered, not even giving a thought to trying to unknown at the Jersey Shore when Mike Haviland gave Rivard a call and asked if he was willing to take a chance in Atlantic City.
“I didn’t know where Atlantic City was,” said Rivard. “I knew it was on the East Coast and in New Jersey, but I had no idea … I didn’t know the population. I knew it had a few casinos.”
You could say Rivard’s gamble to join the Bullies came up aces, after three excellent seasons and a Kelly Cup championship. Rivard’s number 21 was retired last night when the Bullies hosted the Titans in their home opener.
Rivard embraced the role of a leader on and off the ice for the Bullies while falling in love with the Jersey Shore and a Jersey girl. Rivard is now a permanent resident of Atlantic City after marrying Shannon in Dec. of 2002. The couple have a 21-month old daughter Celena with another one on the way.
“I didn’t know him (Haviland),” said Rivard. “I knew I was taking a chance, a lot of players were not even talking to him (Haviland). I knew once I got here it was the right move.”
Rivard and Haviland developed a perfect relationship because of their shared desire.
“He sold me on winning,” said Rivard of Haviland. “He convinced us it was not that far from our grasp and once you get that feeling you never want to let it go.”
Rivard improved the numbers he produced in Birmingham, while keeping his attitude and aggressive nature turning the Bullies into an instant contender.
The Bullies won 130 regular season games in Rivard’s three seasons with the team and claimed the biggest prize, the Kelly Cup championship during the 2002-2003 season.
“The feeling was unbelievable,” said Rivard. “You play every season to win and when you win your last playoff game, it is the ultimate accomplishment.”
Bullies defenseman Ian Walterson, who like Rivard moved from Birmingham to Atlantic City, felt Rivard brought the same game with him from the Bulls to the Bullies, but only better.
“He didn’t change much” said Walterson of Rivard. “He was always a gritty guy who was very skilled. He used his leadership skills very well. I thought he was a great leader.”
Rivard was always in the center of things for the Bullies, scoring a big goal or agitating an opponent into taking a penalty, while competing in the mode of Dale Hunter. Rivard scored 72 goals, had 113 assists and 594 penalty minutes in 181 games with the Bullies.
“He is a guy who does not know any other way, but to play hard,” said Haviland of Rivard. “He will fight you. He will score goals. He was a great leader and is a great man on and off the ice.”
Haviland was thrilled to be in the building to watch Rivard’s jersey raised to the rafters of Boardwalk Hall.
“I am glad I am there for him,” said Haviland. “He was a major part of that organization and a major reason we were successful. He helped me out tremendously too, for that I owe him a lot. He made my job easier. He is a friend I will have for the rest of my life.”
The winning relationship that started when Rivard and Haviland took a chance on each other four years ago has the potential to continue in the future since Rivard is now among the Haviland coaching family.
Rivard is coaching the Junior Titans out of the Wall Sports Arena, a rink run by Mike’s brother George.