This is the story of a family — a hockey family, to be precise.
It was a job transfer in 2003 that brought the Shaffer family down from the suburbs of Detroit to Cleveland. Now, 10 years later, the Shaffer house has a vacancy in it as River migrated north this summer to take his hockey playing to the next logical level.
“A lot of people don’t know about hockey in the South, although they say it’s gaining more notoriety. It just feels more competitive up North. There are more teams and more players, so the margin for error is smaller up here. You have to work harder so you can gain that edge,” River explained.
The decision for the young hockey player to move back up to Michigan was a difficult one for the family, but one that his parents have ultimately come to terms with.
“We don’t have kids to keep them with us for the rest of our lives, they’ve got to grow up. He’s only 14 though, and I tell Jerold that he’s still learning, growing and developing. He’s my baby and I’m not done raising him yet,” Anitra expressed.
Like a majority of children up north, River was introduced to the ice at a young age.
“We built a rink behind our house. It wasn’t big, but it was enough for him to skate back and forth. He was 3 when we introduced him to the ice there,” Jerold said.
Frozen backyards were just the start though, and soon River was actually learning how to skate with the Timbits program, sponsored by Canadian coffee giant Tim Hortons.
Since their local ice rink had a waiting list for the 4-year-old Mini Mites hockey program, which is the first level of USA Minor hockey, the Shaffers began doing an hour drive so that River could learn at another rink.
“River learned the game in Kindergarten and first grade. He would go up there and score; he always did really well,” Anitra stated.
What started with just an hourlong drive soon would become a multihour drive after the family moved to Tennessee.
“We came down here and we called Chattanooga to see if they had any hockey programs, but there was nothing, so we went up to Knoxville. That got River his first real organized instruction,” Jerold explained.
Knoxville, home to the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Ice Bears, had a youth hockey program that was overseen by the SPHL team.
River’s first coach was Josh Akright, who was also a Michigan native and former Ice Bears player.
The family removed themselves from the hockey grind so that River could get involved with football at school.
“We had actually decided to hang up the skates and take a break,” Anitra commented.
The break from hockey only lasted a year, as Ice Bears Squirt travel team coach K.J. Voorhees contacted the family and expressed an interest in having River play for him.
“There was a year that we didn’t play hockey, and K.J. called us,” Jerold said. “He was retiring from the Ice Bears and was going to be coaching the squirt travel team. He wanted River to play for his travel team.”
Now it is important to note that River is a ’99, which in the minor hockey world means that he was born in 1999 and plays with kids also born that year. It’s also important to note, that according to his mom, River soon found himself playing up with the ’98 kids.
Playing for Voorhees and the Ice Bears travel team in 2008 was River’s first foray into travel hockey, and according to his parents, was very helpful in his development.
“K.J. treated them like rock stars. He taught them how to play the game and how to work the boards. They did dominate down South,” Jerold said of River’s first travel team and coach.
After a year of playing with the Ice Bears, River’s family began to travel even farther so that he could play for the Atlanta Thrashers youth travel team based out of Kennesaw, Ga.
While River was playing with the Thrashers he was also playing with the Thunder select travel team, so it’s safe to say that all the travel schedules began to get even more hectic with two trips a week for practice and then travel games on the weekend.
“There’s a lot of travel there and that’s the crazy part. My wife works out of home, I still work for an automotive supply company. At that time I was working second shift, so she got the kids in the van and drove River down to Kennesaw,” Jerold explained.
All of the various schedules and traveling definitely posed a challenge in attempts of having a normal preteen and teenage life.
“We used to joke that he was like Hannah Montana, because he had his Cleveland life and then he had his hockey life,” the hockey mom joked.
Despite a glaring lack of almost anything hockey-related in this area of Tennessee, River’s parents believe that growing up in Cleveland helped their son develop strong athletic skills.
“We were very fortunate, living in Cleveland helped his hockey. He played football and wrestled for three years at CMS. We were able to establish good mental toughness, body control, strength, leverage, which are all big things when you’re a left wing,” Jerold commented.
River, who can play either left or right wing, is jokingly referred to by his father as a “goon,” a title that neither mother nor son fully approve of.
He’s not a goon, he doesn’t go out there and just drop his gloves. I’d say he’s a grinder,” Anitra stated. “He’s built, and is a thick kid. You’ve got kids who are shorter than me, some are growing and some haven’t yet.”
While explaining that he sees his style of play as similar to that of former gritty Detroit Red Wings forward Darren McCarty, River also feels being known as a grinder is more acceptable.
“I prefer the term grinder, it makes me feel more important to the team than if I was just a goon. I’m more of a penalty kill kind of player. Honestly, I’m just out there when the coach needs me,” River remarked. “My favorite player is Justin Abdelkader (of Detroit). He’s always working hard. He came on to the team as a fourth line guy and now he’s playing with Johan Franzen and I think he’s had (Pavel) Datsyuk on his line too. He’s put in the time and it’s paying off. My other favorite would be Ryan Kessler (of the Vancouver Canucks).”
Although he grew up in a region inundated with football, River’s loyalty has always been to the frozen sport.
“It just felt like more of a fun sport than football was. I enjoyed it more and I didn’t have to die in the heat every day. It’s just an all-around better sport,” River explained. “My favorite part is playing around the team and always having the team with you. Hockey is probably the biggest team sport out there. Once you get older you can’t just have one person do it all, there’s different players for each role.”
For the surprisingly well-adjusted 14-year-old, missing out on normal activities such as football games and parties is just a part of the sacrifice.
“Hockey is a game of sacrifices, you can’t just cruise through it,” River stated. “I missed the football games, some parties. I made my friends understand it because I want to be good at the sport and I’ll do anything to get better.”
The true test of the freshman’s dedication to the sport came over the summer, when he went to live with his grandparents in Michigan and play on the Oakland Junior Grizzlies AAA hockey team.
“I think about it as the more work that I put in now, with the sacrifices and everything, the more it will pay off later in life,” River said of his decision. “I think it will help me be an all-around better player. It will help build my skills, plus I’ll have a really good team around me.”
Even though River was born in Michigan, Cleveland is home for the young hockey player, who according to his parents has always been known as “the kid from Tennessee” on the ice.
“I don’t really remember anything from Michigan except for moving. Tennessee is definitely home for me. That’s where I grew up and met all my friends,” River explained. “That was probably the hardest part, leaving everyone I’d met since kindergarten. I had to leave my friends, my parents, my siblings.”
Since moving above the Mason-Dixon line the younger Shaffer has discovered that there are a few glaring differences between the states.
“They don’t really have sweet tea up here,” River remarked. “If it starts snowing I won’t be getting out of school. They’ll go to school even if there is a blizzard up here.”
Back in Tennessee, the Shaffer family is still coming to terms with a slightly emptier nest.
“We’re still getting used to the idea,” Jerold commented. “We do it because we love him and that’s what he loves. We tell all our kids that we will help them. We just try to be good parents. He’s learning perseverance and that you never quit.”
For the once full-time hockey mom and chauffeur, the discipline and life experiences make the struggle worth it.
“We’re not destroyers of dreams, and if he’s the one doing the work and wanting to go, we’ll let him,” Anitra further explained. “For me, just seeing that he’s learning discipline, how to be coached and a good teammate, plus all the different experiences he’s getting makes it worth it.”
The National Hockey League entry draft, which is held every summer, only helps to further the young man’s drive and dedication.
“These people have worked so hard to get there, it’s like watching people’s dream come true on TV,” River stated. “It would be amazing if that could be me in a couple of years.”
At the end of the day, River knows that his move up North will benefit him in the long run as he would like to play hockey for either the University of Michigan or Boston College.
“I feel like I’ll do better this year than in previous years, because I feel like I have a better team around me. I don’t want to dog the South or anything, but I feel like this team is better,” River said. “In five years I’ll be out of high school, so it would be great to be playing for a college team. I’d like to get a scholarship to a college so that if hockey doesn’t work out I have my education as a backup plan.”