TAMPA — He was new to the area. He was new to the job. In fact, Dr. Gil Rivera was so new he didn’t know who the Tampa Bay Lightning were or what they did.
But the dentist learned this quickly: John Tortorella has plenty of bite.
Rivera came dressed casually for a meeting when Tortorella was the Lightning’s coach, and Torts chewed him out for breaking the dress code.
Rivera walked into his bosses’ office the next day to tell them he may have lost the Lightning gig.
Instead, as he looks back on it 18 years later, it was Rivera’s unofficial welcome-to-the-club moment.
“The only hockey experience I had prior to this was putting on a pair of skates and playing on a pond with some friends in Connecticut,” he said. “I literally walked into this (job).”
Rivera, 44, is one of three dentists that serves the Lightning, working alongside Dr. James Green and Dr. Sam Caranante. For 12 of those 18 years, he has served as the team’s primary dentist.
Lightning fans who sit near the bench may have noticed a strange set of people in the arena.
Rivera, a Tampa resident, and the other Lightning doctors sit in Row H, right next to the tunnel, during the home games they’re working. Rivera said it’s an NHL guideline that all doctors sit no more than 50 yards from the team bench.
He’s right there in the action most times. But unlike many fans, his heart isn’t racing in a good way when the gloves drop on the ice.
“I cringe and hold my breath during fights,” he said. “My whole body gets stiff, too. I freeze. I don’t want (the players) hurt or out of the game.”
When Rivera is at the games and can’t see what’s going on with his own eyes he’ll look to the videoboard and team bench. When he makes eye contact with the trainers and assistant coaches, he knows when and if to come down.
Rivera was actually home when the highly-anticipated Erik Cernak-Tom Wilson fight broke out in the Lightning’s final home game against the Capitals last season. Thankfully Green, an oral surgeon on the Lightning’s dentist staff, was able to handle the case and pull the rest of the tooth out of Cernak’s mouth that night.
“But fights hardly ever cause a lot of damage,” Rivera said.
Rivera said most of the time the forwards are the ones needing some work done. The defensemen typically only need it when they drop down on the ice to block a shot.
The Ben Bishop injury is still one of the most puzzling cases Rivera has ever had to handle. Goalies hardly ever need work done since they wear a mask. It’s so rare, in fact, that most goaltenders don’t wear mouth guards. But not even Bishop’s mask couldn’t protect him.
When a slapshot from Toronto’s Peter Holland came flying at Bishop about three years ago, the then-Lightning goaltender tilted his neck up as the puck flew toward his face.
The chunk of rubber ricocheted off the top of his mask, with the force of the shot sending his chin strap flying into his mouth and knocking out his two front teeth.
“It’s a million-to-one shot that I will probably never see again,” Rivera said.
One of the most challenging cases the Lightning dentist has ever worked was back in 2007 with former Lightning center Craig MacDonald, who lost 10 teeth — all at the same time. A shot from Toronto’s Hal Gill gifted MacDonald with 80 stitches in his mouth that night.
Five missing teeth on the top and another five on the bottom took a while for Rivera to repair. The exposed nerves at the top of his mouth didn’t help matters either.
But none of it stopped MacDonald from his return to the lineup about a week later.
On average, Rivera said he deals with 20 serious cases every season, excluding regular visits from the players, coaching staff and even some families related to people in the organization.
Most of his cases come from high-sticking or friendly fire.
“It (high-sticking) is the most subtle, yet the most violent to the teeth,” he said. “I see it because I see their reactions. High-sticking happens so often, yet, it’s barely caught.”
It’s one of the reasons Rivera has molds in his office, some that date back to his early days with the franchise, stacked between two cabinet doors on a single shelf.
All of the current players have them stored there in case they need a new mouth guard immediately. The beginning of the season usually has Rivera making two or three mouth guards per player before the first game alone. After that, he makes them as requested in-house.
“It comes in waves,” he said.
Patients can’t miss the custom-framed Martin St. Louis jersey hanging on the wall inside Rivera’s office, which sits just across the street from Raymond James Stadium.
It’s accompanied by a couple of personal photos, including his Stanley Cup ring ceremony in 2004 and a staff photo with the hefty piece of hardware when the Cup visited Rivera’s office that summer.
But the jersey is more than a simple memento: It’s the only hockey jersey Rivera has ever owned.
“Thx for the best smile in the league!!” St. Louis wrote two months before the 2014 trade that sent him to the New York Rangers.
St. Louis and Rivera had a special relationship. He was Rivera’s first Lightning patient when he helped the winger fix a chipped tooth.
Rivera chuckled that both of them are also short in stature. Rivera also said that he has completed almost every dental operation on St. Louis, with the exception of an implant.
And the jersey is a daily reminder of how lucky he is to have the gig he does with one of the best teams in the league.