When James van Riemsdyk last set foot at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, he was cleaning out his locker following the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. He was 23 years old, and had just completed an injury-plagued third season in the NHL.
Although his stint was relatively short, van Riemsdyk packed a lot into those three years.
As a rookie in 2009-10, he was part of a team that fell just two victories shy of winning the Stanley Cup. The next year, he produced his first 20-goal season in the NHL and dominated at times during an 11-game playoff run. Even in his frustrating third season, he managed 11 goals in just 43 games and was in the lineup throughout the Flyers first-round playoff upset victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On July 25, 2018, the now 29-year-old van Riemsdyk returned to the Skate Zone for his formal reintroduction as a Flyer after signing a five-year contract on July 1 as an unrestricted free agent. He has returned not simply older, but more assertive and confident from having become a two-time 30-goal scorer (four times with 27-plus goals) during a six-year stay with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
One seemingly superficial difference between JVR the first time around and the second is that he will wear a different uniform number. He sported No. 21 is his first stint.
Although new Flyers teammate Scott Laughton probably would have been willing to give up No. 21 if van Riemsdyk asked him to do so, JVR instead opted for No. 25; the jersey number he wore in Toronto. According to van Riemsdyk, the decision to adopt his Toronto sweater number had thought behind it.
"It's a new time, new change, new challenge so I wanted to have something to reflect that," van Riemsdyk said. "Obviously, I switched in Toronto, so I'm just going to continue on with that and go from there. There was no jockeying for [my old Flyers number]."
In light of the rapid turnover of rosters that is commonplace in the National Hockey League, an unusually high number of players who were here during the final season of van Riemsdyk's first stint with the Flyers are still members of the team six years later: Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier were all part of the Flyers' 2011-12 squad. Both Giroux and Voracek spoke to van Riemsdyk this offseason while he was fielding free agent offers from a reported 11 different teams. While van Riemsdyk appreciated their recruiting efforts, it was only a small part of his decision to choose Philadelphia. Likewise, his fond memories of the organization from his early years in the NHL carried a certain amount of weight, but were not the primary factor.
"Everything about the fit here seemed to be great. Lots of talented players to play with and I think a lot of good youth, too, on the way, which is exciting. The thing about the Flyers, the first thing I noticed ever since I was drafted here is that they'll do whatever it takes to win so that's every resource you could possibly want and need to hopefully find an edge. That's kind of the way it's been here forever so you want to be in a situation like that where every year, no matter what it is, we're going to do what it takes to find a way to win," van Riemsdyk said.
At age 29, van Riemsdyk is still in the prime of his career although slowly nearing the latter portion of that career phase. One of the things he's looking forward to in his second time around in Philadelphia, both now and in years to come, is to stepping into more of a role as part of a veteran leadership core. That is especially true because:
"As you get the experience you figure out more as the years go on what works and what doesn't work and how to best prepare yourself every single day to have good practices and good games and just keep being more consistent in that sense. Certainly, you learn with that sort of stuff," van Riemsdyk said.
"I think certainly the game gets fast and faster it seems like every year and that's not only guys being fast skaters but decision-making and how the coaches want to play the game now. I think that's conducive for guys that are skilled and smart and that's what I like to consider myself as a player. Off the ice I think too, the teams tend to be a little bit younger now too so that's a little bit different. I remember walking in here my first training camp and you had guys like Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Ian Laperrière, guys like that. It's interesting to see the shift in the average age of guys over the course of my career."