“Yes, it’s true,” the 18-year-old forward explained, surrounded by a media horde in the recesses of the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, mere minutes after being selected second overall by the Flyers at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
“I did grow up a huge Rangers fan.”
Van Riemsdyk glanced up briefly, as someone toward the back of the contingent – perhaps a playful reporter or even a random passer by – let out a mock gasp. Laughter followed, as those gathered understood the irony of the situation.
The star of the moment, now seeming a bit more relaxed, continued: “But, you know, from the moment my name was called, all of that changed. That might not be a very popular decision to everyone back home, but I’m a Philadelphia Flyers fan from here on out. All the way.”
“Home” for van Riemsdyk is Middletown, New Jersey, a mere 85 miles northeast of Philly (but only 45 miles south of Midtown Manhattan).
With the selection, the 6’3”, 200-pound forward not only became the first Garden State native and second-highest player ever to be drafted by the team; he was also instantly tabbed as one of the projected cornerstones of the resurgent franchise’s future. The Jersey Kid
Van Riemsdyk was born on May 4, 1989, in Middletown, New Jersey, certainly no hockey hotbed, at least in terms of developing future professionals. But the area was and remains a stronghold of the New York Rangers. James’ father, Frans, grew up a diehard fan of the team, and passed his passion on to his son.
|James vanRiemsdyk of Team USA Blue skates with the puck against Team Finland during an exhibition game on August 7, 2007 at the 1980 Rink Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York. Team USA defeated Team Sweden 5-4. (Getty Images) |
“My dad loves the game, first and foremost,” van Riemsdyk explained. “But he also loves the Rangers. I guess it was kind of odd for me to be drafted by the team’s biggest rival, in a way. But the important thing was, he taught me the game and raised me on hockey. It was something I have loved for as long as I can remember.”
Van Riemsdyk also cited his mother, Allison, and his uncle, Ellonya Green, as the most influential figures of his childhood. Green has served as an associate head basketball coach for such Division I programs as Fairleigh Dickinson, Hofstra and St. Bonaventure.
“They were all so supportive and integral to my development, not just as a hockey player, but as a person,” he said. “Without the support of my family, I wouldn’t have made it to this point, that’s for sure. I owe them so much. We’re all very close, very tight-knit.”
Entering the 2007-08 season, only six players born in New Jersey had ever madeit to the NHL. One was Brian Lawton, a New Brunswick native who, despite being selected first overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1983, turned out to be a bust.
Perhaps the most successful has been Brick Township’s own Jim Dowd, a 16-year pro currently skating in his first season with the Flyers. Dowd, ironically, appeared in 19 playoff games as a rookie with the New Jersey Devils in 1993-94.
The Devils fell that year to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, en route to the Blueshirts’ first Stanley Cup win in 54 years. Van Riemsdyk, then only five, remembers the Rangers’ win, and the ensuing celebration, very well. He credits it as the event that sparked his already growing passion for the game.
“It was incredible,” he recalled. “Even at a very young age, it was great. I remember my dad jumping around, pumping his fist. It was something we shared, and always will. I hope everyone in Philly understands. Now, I hope to experience that again someday as a [member of the Flyers].”
As for individual memories of the Rangers’ historic run, one event stands out most: Goaltender Mike Richter’s penalty shot save on Vancouver Canuck’s superstar Pavel Bure in Game 4 of the finals.
“I remember my dad jumping out of his chair, nearly hitting his head on the ceiling,” van Riemsdyk recalled, with a laugh. “It was as funny as it was exciting. I’ll never forget that.” Bricks to Success
Richter, of course, is a native of Flourtown, Pennsylvania who grew up a Flyers fan, idolizing Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent. He watched as Parent backstopped the “Broad Street Bullies” to a pair of Stanley Cup wins in the mid-1970s, then went on to star for and win a championship with the team’s arch nemesis.
“Hey, I would love to become the reverse of that,” said van Riemsdyk. “Richter was the Philly guy who went on to become a legend with the Rangers. I’m a born Rangers fan, and now I’ve made it my goal to play with the Flyers. It’s funny the way things work out sometimes, but I have a long, long way to go before I can even begin to compare myself to Richter, or any player on that level.”
What player would he like to be able to compare himself to most, when all is said and done?
“Oh, I would have to say Adam Graves,” he said, citing the retired power forward who was another linchpin of the Rangers’ success in 1994. “I loved the way he played the game. Very gritty, very passionate, just a guy who worked hard on every shift, scored ugly goals, did whatever he could to help his team win. He was my favorite player.”
|James van Riemsdyk with Comcast-Spectacor President Peter A. Luukko and General Manager Paul Holmgren at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft in Columbus, Ohio. (Getty Images) |
It was Graves who van Riemsdyk attempted to pattern his game after from a young age. He probably would have caught the eye of scouts while dominating the youth leagues he started out in, but, well, there really weren’t any scouts around to impress.
In fact, van Riemsdyk didn’t begin to garner much attention at all until he entered prep school. It was at the Christian Brothers Academy where he made his mark, and put himself on the radar of the U.S. National Development Program officials.
Playing for the CBA, as well as the Brick Hockey Club in 2004-05, Van Riemsdyk totaled 60 points (36 goals, 24 assists) in just 30 games. He was named First-Team All-State, after scoring the overtime goal that clinched the state championship for the Colts.
Van Riemsdyk had been heavily shadowed throughout the title game against Delbarton. Though frustrated, he eventually broke through and willed his team to victory.
With just over six minutes left in the extra frame, he skated in and fired the puck past the Delbarton netminder, giving the academy its first state title since 1996.
“That was an amazing moment, and will always be one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “Winning the state championship was almost impossible to fathom. It was around that time that I really started to believe that I had a future in pro hockey, that I could make it and maybe even play in the NHL one day.”
Mike Reynolds, head coach at the CBA and a former standout at Merrimack College, had already shared in the belief that James had a bright future on the ice.
"I told (James' father) Frans one night at a party when James was in eighth grade that James was going to be a Division I hockey player," he told Digital Sports New Jersey staff writer Bob Badders this past summer.
“He looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding me,' and I said, 'No, I'm telling you right now he will.' I knew that then, but I never thought he would go second overall in the NHL Draft."
Hello, Ann Arbor
Despite the tremendous strides he had made and the dominance he displayed in guiding the Christian Brothers Academy to the state championship, vanRiemsdyk’s most impressive trait might have been the loyalty and dedication he showed to his own teammates.
In the midst of the CBA’s title run, the young forward was invited to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend a tryout session with the National Development Program. Despite being urged by some supporters to go, he declined, electing not to leave his team in New Jersey.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision at all,” he explained. “I mean, I really wanted to impress the national team coaches, but I thought my place was at home, where my team was in the middle of the season. Everything would work out as it should, I thought. This is what I had to do.”
Everything did work out, of course, and vanRiemsdyk’s performance in leading the Colts to the New Jersey state title only raised his stock in the eyes of the national program’s officials.
That summer, van Riemsdyk finally made his way out to Ann Arbor to participate in a USA Hockey Summer Camp. An impressive performance easily earned him a place within the program.
“If it wasn’t for that, I would probably still be playing New Jersey high school hockey and club,” he said. “That was a big calling for me, and put off a light bulb in my head that if I want this dream, I’ve got to go for it and this is the best way. It was an easy decision when I laid it all out.”
He left home as a 15-year-old to join the program.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I realized that. I had to convince my parents a little bit to let me go, but I was pretty set on going when I was offered a spot on the team.”
Van Riemsdyk would go on to split the 2005-06 season with the NTDP’s Under-17 and Under-18 squads.
In 55 games with the U-17 team, he recorded 42 points (26 goals, 16 assists) and 62 penalty minutes. He played a major role in helping the team win a silver medal at the 2006 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, scoring nine points (five goals, four assists) in seven games, and was named to the All-Tournament Team.
He was subsequently promoted to the U-18 team, for whom he played well, albeit in a more limited role. In 14 total games, he tallied four points (one goal, three assists), and was a member of Team USA team that won gold at the Ice Hockey Federation World Under-18 Championships.
“That season was really an education,” he remembers. “All of a sudden, I went from high school, basically, to playing for the national team in international competitions. It’s a real honor whenever you’re selected to represent your country. That’s the biggest thing. You have to continue to play at a high level to keep your spot, because there are plenty of young, hungry players waiting for that chance.
“It’s all about pride, and I was so proud to wear that USA jersey. Winning the silver at the [U-17] Hockey Challenge and especially the gold at the Under-18 tournament were amazing experiences. It was great to be a part of that in my first year with the program.” The Breakout Season
Looking back, van Riemsdyk feels that he learned a great deal during his first of two seasons as a member of the NTDP. But he can easily identify the most important factor.
|James van Riemsdyk skates during a game for the University of New Hampshire. (Photo courtesy University of New Hampshire) |
“Confidence,” he said, without hesitation. “Just finding out and understanding that I could play with the top players in my age group was a huge thing. The more my confidence grew, the better I played, the better I learned to use my size and my skills to my advantage.
“What I wanted to do, and fortunately, it worked, was take the confidence I gained and have it carry over to my second season with the program. I knew I’d have to continue to work hard, but that I could become a key player for the U-18 team. That was my goal going into the year.”
Indeed, van Riemsdyk would enter the 2006-07 season as a full-time member of the U-18 squad. At the dawn of the campaign, he was beginning to get mention as a possible first round pick at the 2007 Entry Draft. By the end of the season, he would be acknowledged as one of the top prospects in the world.
“Honestly, that stuff was in my mind, but my focus was on helping my team,” van Riemsdyk said of his status as an NHL prospect. “The thing was, [the draft] seemed so far away and there were so many things we had to gear up for. There really wasn’t any time to think about it all.”
Van Riemsdyk enjoyed a true breakout season, emerging as, perhaps, the program’s top player. He went on to lead the U-18 team in goals (33), power play goals (11), game-winning goals (6), and points (63), and finished second in assists (30) in just 42 games.
Most importantly, he led Team USA to a gold medal at the World Under-18 Championships, and was the youngest member of the program’s entry at the World Junior Championships, which captured a surprise bronze medal in Sweden.
"He was the best forward in that tournament," said Central Scouting Bureau director and former Flyers assistant coach E.J. Maguire, of vanRiemsdyk‘s performance at the U-18 Championships. "It was a good gauge of his talent. Often, NHL teams read the last chapter first and if you finish the season strong, that's the last they remember at the draft table."
In recognition of both his accomplishments and potential, the CSB ranked van Riemsdyk as the third-best available player in its final report before the upcoming draft, behind only London Knights (OHL) sniper Patrick Kane and Burnaby Express (BCHL) star Kyle Turris.
“It was a great season for the program, and for me, personally,” he explained, in true, unselfish form. “What we accomplished was special, and we’re all very proud of that. For me, gaining the recognition I got, well, it was very exciting.
“I felt that I grew up as a player during my two seasons with the national program, and I was ready for what was ahead.” “A Dream Come True”
Prior to the completion of the 2006-07 season, van Riemsdyk made a crucial decision about his future. Despite being heavily recruited by a number of top programs, including Boston College, Boston University and the University of Michigan, he committed to attend and play for the University of New Hampshire the following year.
“It came down to New Hampshire and Michigan at the end, but it was really an easy choice for me,” he said. “The coaches [at UNH] were terrific, and I really fell in love with the campus and just the whole atmosphere up there. I thought the program was the perfect fit for my game. It‘s definitely one of the elite programs in the NCAA.”
UNH head coach Dick Umile, obviously quite pleased with the acquisition of one of the highest-ranked college-bound teenagers in the nation, agreed.
“There's no question we are getting a great prospect," he said. "[van Riemsdyk] does just about everything. He is going to be able to step right in for us and do a lot of things you don't normally expect of a freshman."
Before venturing up to New England, however, there was one more matter to attend to. As the NHL community converged on Columbus, Ohio for the 2007 Entry Draft, the there was little question that van Riemsdyk would be selected with one of the top picks. But where, and to what team, would he go?
In the end, as expected, the Chicago Blackhawks opted to take Patrick Kane with the first overall pick. Most media outlets had the Flyers, who found themselves in the unusual position of drafting second, taking Turris. But it was van Riemsdyk who the team had coveted most all along. Turris wound up going third, to Wayne Gretzky’s Phoenix Coyotes.
Only Mel Bridgman, whom the Flyers selected first overall in 1975, had been picked higher than vanRiemsdyk in the team's 40-year history.
“All three of these kids were very close. Very close,” said Holmgren, who also went on to compare vanRiemsdyk to a young John LeClair. “We’d have been happy with any of them, but you have to make a decision and James ended up on top.”
For van Riemsdyk, like most players fortunate enough to be drafted, the day was one he’ll never forget.
“It was a dream come true,” he said. “What more can I say? I had a feeling the Flyers were interested, and that I might be picked by them, based on some good conversations I had with them at the combine before the draft. But, it was still such a rush, such a big deal to hear my name called, and to be the center of attention like that.
“We actually had a large group of my family, friends and teammates from the Christian Brothers Academy sitting in our section. So, when I was picked, I had a big cheering section there. That was great. It felt unbelievable. All thoughts of being a Rangers fan went out the window when that happened. I was so happy to become a Flyer.”
Some media outlets continued to express surprise that the Flyers chose van Riemsdyk over Turris, but that did not stop the accolades from coming in for the proud New Jersey native.
“He's the best combination of size and skill in this draft,” said Kyle Woodlief, chief scout and publisher of the Red Line Report, who first saw van Riemsdyk play at age 15. “He's got as big an upside as anyone.
“He's got a wicked snap shot and a nasty wrister which he can use from anywhere. I've seen him beat goalies, at the international level, from 45 to 50 feet out. He can [also] get garbage goals, because he's so big and strong he's impossible to move in front of the net.”
A New Challenge
Van Riemsdyk arrived in New Hampshire this past summer with a great deal of confidence and anticipation for his debut at the NCAA level.
“It’s a new challenge and a new opportunity,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get started. Coming off of two great seasons with the national program, and then being fortunate enough to be drafted second overall by the Flyers, I couldn’t have asked for more. Now, I was ready to give all I could to [the UNH program].”
Unlike most collegiate freshmen, van Riemsdyk was expected to become a major contributor right away. His pedigree ensured as much, despite the added pressure of performing for a national powerhouse. Regardless, the player known to his teammates as “JVR” has not disappointed.
Through seven games, he is presently tied for second on the Wildcats and sixth in Hockey East in scoring with eight points (three goals, five assists) and six penalty minutes. His play has been a big factor in helping the team get off to a terrific start (3-1-1 in conference play, 5-1-1 overall).
Van Riemsdyk introduced himself to the collegiate scene with a spectacular, highlight reel goal in his first game, which turned out to be a 4-1 win at Boston University.
With close to five minutes remaining in the third period and his team holding a two-goal lead, van Riemsdyk picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and blazed his way down the right wing boards. He deked out the last BU defender, former U-18 teammate Kevin Shattenkirk, by flipping the puck behind his back, settled it down inside the circle, and fired a wrist shot into the upper left-hand corner of the net.
"That's probably why he was number two in the draft," said Umile, who celebrated his 400th career victory in the process. "That was sick, what he did."
"The goal was fabulous," said BU coach Jack Parker. "He beat his teammate from last year and walked him pretty nice. [Shattenkirk] got beat one-on-one, so obviously that ruined his night."
Footage of the goal started making the rounds online immediately. It’s not hard to find.
(Editor’s note – to see the goal on youtube, click here
“Everything’s going great so far,” van Riemsdyk said. “Our team has come out strong this season, though we realize it’s only going to get tougher from here on out. We’re in first place now, but every team is going to be gunning for us. It’ll be fun, actually. It already is.
“For me, I feel the adjustment is going well. I’ve really gelled with my linemates, (seniors) Mike Radja and Matt Fornataro. They’re great guys, and they’ve both helped me so much. We have good chemistry, and the team is very tight. I want to be nothing less than a key contributor for this team. I think I’m off to a good start, which is important.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a teammate who disagrees.
"It was obviously huge for us to land of a player of his stature," Fornataro, the Wildcats’ captain, told CSTV.com. "He is an offensive force who can put up points very quickly. He produces, that's for sure.
"We have a great team coming back, but getting a guy like vanRiemsdyk definitely helps. Hopefully, he can help us finally win a national championship. He definitely has expectations to meet."
Those expectations, obviously, can only be met over time. But there can be no denying that van Riemsdyk’s NCAA career is off to about as good a start as could be expected. Still, there is always room for improvement. Setting his Sights
As was the case earlier in his career when the draft loomed on the horizon, van Riemsdyk remains focused on the task at hand. There will be time to think about the Flyers and his fortunes in the NHL later.
“Sure, my goal is to play in pros, to become a contributor for the Flyers and eventually win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “That’s every player’s dream. But, I’m dedicated to the UNH program at this time, and helping this team win a National Championship is first and foremost in my mind.
“I want to improve in any way I can while I’m here, no matter how long that is. I know I still have to get stronger, work on my stickhandling and play in the defensive zone. Things like that. The Flyers have been helpful with advice, and our coaches here are incredible. I’ve already learned so much, and feel like I get better and better every game.”
"He's a big guy with good hands, but he needs to work on his intensity," Flyers chief scout Dennis Patterson said. "He'll get bigger and stronger at UNH."
Like Holmgren, Patterson sees a lot of John LeClair in van Riemsdyk’s game. He has also compared him favorably to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, two young players who played integral roles in helping the Anaheim Ducks capture their first Stanley Cup last season.
“It’s an honor to be compared to players like that, really,” said van Riemsdyk. “I hope I can follow their examples.”
While conceding that he will always be influenced by his favorite player, Adam Graves, he now models his game most closely after that of two premier players: Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Nash is a great player, a prototypical power forward,” he explained. “I love everything about his game. Staal is great also, because he does everything so well. I am a big fan of what they do for their teams, and the way they carry themselves on and of the ice.”
Certainly, the Flyers wouldn’t mind seeing vanRiemsdyk follow the career paths of any of the aforementioned players.
"When you watch where the game is now, you don't find too many guys that are 6‘3“, that can skate and handle the puck,” noted Flyers Director of Hockey Operations Chris Pryor. “But, James van Riemsdyk
falls into that category. They are hard to find, and this guy falls into there.”