After 16 years in professional hockey, including 184 games as a member of the St. Louis Blues, Jamie Rivers wasn't certain where he would be when he eventually decided to hang up his skates. That next phase in his hockey career started this week when he was named coach of the St. Charles Chill of the Central Hockey League. And in an interesting twist of fate, it was a freak injury that allowed the longtime NHL defenseman to come home.
Formerly the Laredo Bucks, the CHL team's franchise rights were transferred this summer to a new ownership group, which moved them to St. Charles, just a few miles northwest of St. Louis. When the Chill started looking for a coach, Rivers saw a chance to start his new career in his own back yard.
"I was drafted in 1993 [by St. Louis]. Right away when I got here I heard that a lot of guys love to stay here and grow roots in the city," Rivers told NHL.com. "I met my wife here in St. Louis. We have four children now and I think I've been living here since 1995."
For the Chill, who won't play their first CHL game until the 2013-14 season, the objective is to establish roots in the area and become a mainstay in the community. It was imperative the club get a keen hockey mind with a strong connection to the area.
"This is a Blues community through and through. I knew that having a player that played with them and knew the ins and outs of that program would only help," Chill president/general manager Nicole Kubaks said. "It was actually one of the most important criteria for what we were looking for. Jamie contacted us, and after our first meeting I just knew he was the right guy for this role."
It's a great opportunity for Rivers, who by his own admission couldn't have foreseen any of it when he started the 2010-11 season as a member of Zagreb Medvescak of the KHL. In his 14th game of the season, Rivers initiated contact with an opposing player, whose helmet hit him squarely in the midsection.
"Although I didn't really feel anything at the time, my spleen burst. I wasn't fully aware of it until 30 hours later, when my body started to go into shock and I couldn't move. It was pretty scary," Rivers said. "I'd be lying to you right now if I said I probably wouldn't be playing somewhere still if that injury hadn't happened."
At the time, Rivers held out hope for an eventual return. But just as he was getting ready to come back to the ice, the veteran blueliner made a shocking discovery.
"When they did the surgery over in Croatia, they sewed me up wrong internally and I now have a pinched area of an intestine that if I suffer a big blow it will explode and I can die pretty much instantly," said Rivers, who opted for retirement over another intensive operation. "It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with, excluding deaths in the family and people getting sick. Being a guy that has played hockey since I was 4 years old and then playing professionally as long as I did and not knowing anything else, to suddenly have that ripped away from me, for lack of a better word, was really tough."
With his playing career abruptly ended, Rivers eventually came back to St. Louis, where he remained involved with the Blues. By the time he started looking to begin his coaching career, he feared he might have to move his family again after spiriting them through almost a dozen cities in Europe and North America over the past decade. So when the Chill arrived, Rivers pounced at the opportunity to help build a club from scratch in his hometown.
"It's something I've been working on for the last couple of years, just trying to get myself back in the game, especially at the coaching level," Rivers said. "It's right down the road from my home. I just think it's going to be a fantastic spot for me."