ATLANTIC CITY - Stefan Rivard arrived at the Flyers Skate Zone in Atlantic City on Thursday unannounced.
On the ice were members of the Art Dorrington Ice Hockey Foundation, an after-school program with which Rivard has no direct affiliation.
Some of the kids, ranging from third to eighth grade, immediately gravitated toward the former professional ice hockey player when he and his 9-year-old son, Brent, took the ice for 20 minutes.
"I love coaching," Rivard said at the Skate Zone while the children practiced in the background.
"It's rewarding for me to give back what somebody gave me as far as helping me along in the hockey world, and I just love coming to the rink and teaching these kids this great game of hockey."
It's been almost nine years since a professional ice hockey team resided in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. It's been 11 years since the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies won the ECHL's Kelly Cup title.
Although it spent just four years in town, the team left a notable presence in South Jersey that's still evident, especially with youth hockey.
The Bullies left Atlantic City after the 2004-05 season and moved to Stockton, Calif., where the team has played since as the Stockton Thunder.
Two of the Bullies' most-remembered players, Ian Walterson and Rivard, are still in South Jersey. When their professional playing careers concluded, they turned to coaching.
Walterson coaches a club team at Richard Stockton College, and Rivard is the coach of the Atlantic City Sharks youth team, which Brent plays on.
"I'm watching kids go on to junior careers and college careers that I've coached," said Walterson, who has been at Stockton for eight years.
"Hockey is a game you grew up with and now you're able to pass it on to kids. And you didn't realize while you're playing what kind of impact you're having on all those young kids."
Rivard, 40, stayed in South Jersey after he retired following the 2003-04 season. He met his wife, Shannon, and together they raised, Brent, and their 11-year-old daughter, Celena, in Northfield.
In three seasons and 181 games for the Bullies, Rivard scored 72 goals and 113 assists. He had his No. 21 retired, making him the only Boardwalk Bully to receive that honor, and the second Atlantic City hockey player along with Atlantic City Seagulls great Art Dorrington, who was the first black professional hockey player.
Now Rivard is a firefighter for the Atlantic City International Airport. Not a day goes by where Rivard misses playing professional hockey and hanging out on Absecon Island with his former teammates.
"There was no place like going to the rink and spending time with the guys you were going to battle with every night," Rivard said. "That's probably the one thing I miss the most."
Walterson, 35, stayed in South Jersey after his playing career concluded with the Bullies in 2004-05. He is in between jobs as a sports performance trainer, as well as coaching Stockton.
Walterson scored 21 goals and added 58 assists, and was the alternate captain for three seasons as well as captain his last season. He played in the most games as a Bullie with 257, and was one of two players, along with fan-favorite Luke Curtin, to play in Atlantic City for all four seasons.
Walterson enjoyed an eventful 2003 season in which he won the Kelly Cup and celebrated the birth of his first daughter, Laine. Laine, 11, was also born just 10 days before Rivard's daughter, Celena.
But that almost never happened for Walterson, who lives in Egg Harbor Township with his wife, Karen, and daughters, Laine and Sienna, 8.
A week before signing with the Bullies, Walterson nearly signed an American Hockey League contract. Instead he stuck with the Birmingham Bulls, who moved to Atlantic City after the 2000-01 season.
"I just wanted to sign a contract and play somewhere," Walterson said. "I was looking to make that jump to the NHL as a young guy, but I ended up meeting my wife and having kids. My life could have been dramatically different."
In 2012-13, Walterson was named the Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference Coach of the Year. It was a long way from when Walterson, along with Greg Ball, the former assistant general manager of the Atlantic City Skate Zone brought the idea of ice hockey to Stockton.
"We pretty much built that program from street hockey players and roller hockey players," Walterson said. "Now we're a pretty competitive team."
Thousands of fans flocked to Boardwalk Hall on Feb. 14 during an AHL game between the Albany Devils and Hershey Bears. Rivard and Walterson were there to commemorate the 2003 Kelly Cup Championship Bullies team.
Also in attendance were Bears coach Mike Haviland, and assistant coach Ryan Mougenel. Haviland coached the Bullies for three years, including the 2003 championship season, and Mougenel was a player on that team.
Over the years, Walterson said it's been tough keeping in touch with all of his former teammates. Many of them are coaching, or scattered throughout North America with families of their own.
"Whenever we get a chance through social media and those types of things it's always easier than it was back in the day," Walterson said in February. "So every once in a while on Facebook we'll chat or get together for a beer here or there when a team like this gets into town."
During warmups, Rivard stood on the visitor's bench with Haviland and took in the feel of a professional hockey game. It prompted Rivard to look back on his time in Atlantic City and remember the first time he ever stepped foot in the Hall.
"The first time that I walked in actually was with Coach Havy, and I'll never forget it," Rivard said. "It was just one of those pictures in my mind.
"I had a good three years here, and I just love coming back as a fan. I just wish there was a team here, a more permanent team, but it's better than having nothing at all."
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