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Flyers' van Riemsdyk was born to play

by Chuck Gormley /
When it comes to producing big-time talent, there is no shortage of star power from the coastal town of Middletown, N.J.

Rockers Jon Bon Jovi, Debbie Harry and E Street Band members Steven Van Zandt and Max Weinberg were raised there. So were television personalities Geraldo Rivera, Connie Chung and Maury Povich.

In other words, Philadelphia Flyers rookie James van Riemsdyk may have a ways to go before he is recognized as the most talented native of the Monmouth County town of 66,000.

Known by most of his teammates as "JVR," van Riemsdyk (pronounced van-REEMS-dike) has grown accustomed to chasing other people's expectations.

For the past two years he has endured comparisons to Chicago Blackhawks star right wing Patrick Kane, the only player taken ahead of him in the 2007 Entry Draft.

Fans who saw Kane run away with Calder Trophy as an 18-year-old wondered why van Riemsdyk chose to play two seasons in relative anonymity at the University of New Hampshire, twice snubbing the Flyers' suggestions he turn pro.

Yet here he is, physically matured at 20 years old, proving to the Flyers that he is, indeed, worth the wait.

"Overall, I'm very pleased with James," said Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren, who spent a year at the University of Minnesota before joining the Flyers as a 20-year-old rookie in 1976. "He made the team on merit and now he's in a position to get better and better in practices and games.

"Whether he stays here is up to him. Can he make it on his ability? Absolutely. But we won't just give him the job."

In his first 21 NHL games, van Riemsdyk picked up 6 goals and 13 assists, but learned quickly that even at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, the NHL packs a wallop. In his home debut against the Washington Capitals, van Riemsdyk was drilled headfirst into the boards by 6-4, 233-pound Capitals defenseman Milan Jurcina, suffering a head injury that kept him out of two games.

Van Riemsdyk returned to the lineup a week later and picked up his fourth assist in four games. Despite his early playmaking ability, van Riemsdyk is expected to make his mark as an NHL goal scorer built in the likeness of three-time 50-goal scorer John LeClair.

"James maybe has a little more speed than Johnny, but you can tell he's got the skill, he's got the talent and he's got the size," Flyers left wing Simon Gagne, a teammate of LeClair's then and van Riemsdyk's now, said. "That's something the Flyers have always liked."

Really, it's something every hockey coach in North America always has liked.

In his 25 years of coaching youth hockey at the Ocean Ice Palace in Brick, N.J., Alex DePalma has seen his share of promising players. No one, however, comes close to the raw talent he noticed 10 years ago in a lanky, 10-year-old from nearby Middletown.

"When James made a move, you could hear the boys on both benches saying, 'Whoa!'" DePalma recalls. "He had that Wow Factor even at 10 years old."

The oldest of three boys, van Riemsdyk began skating at the age of 3 at the urging of his father, Frans, who was born in the Netherlands, moved to Montreal as a child, and grew up in Madison, N.J.

Frans van Riemsdyk met his wife, Allison, at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania and the two settled in Middletown. James began playing for the Brick Hockey Club at age 9, leading his team to a 42-0 record in its first two seasons under DePalma and Frans van Riemsdyk.

James van Riemsdyk went on to play at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, N.J., where he led the Colts to the 2005 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Non-Public A championship, scoring the game-winning overtime goal at Continental Airlines Arena (now Izod Center) in East Rutherford.

"That was pretty cool," van Riemsdyk said. "I've scored at different levels, but it's a whole different feeling when you win a championship with all your friends there. It meant a lot to a lot of people."

"We scouted a number of players that year. James was an explosive young player and we figured at that time he was not as good as he's going to be. We figured he'd grow into that big frame." -- Flyers' GM Paul Holmgren

Following his sophomore season at CBA, van Riemsdyk took DePalma's advice and moved to the U.S. National Team Development Program, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"He needed to go to that next level of coaching and players," DePalma said. "He had grown out of what we could give."

Over the next two seasons, van Riemsdyk blossomed into one of the top prospects in the world, leading the USNTDP with 31 goals in 49 games.

The Flyers, who were on their way to finishing with the NHL's worst record in 2006-07, were hot on his trail.

"We scouted a number of players that year," said Holmgren, noting the Flyers' interest in Kane, Coyotes forward Kyle Turris, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner and Oilers forward Sam Gagner. "James was an explosive young player and we figured at that time he was not as good as he’s going to be. We figured he'd grow into that big frame."

With more than 30 friends and family attending the 2007 Entry Draft in Columbus, Ohio, van Riemsdyk was taken by the Flyers with the second pick, right after Chicago chose Kane.

While van Riemsdyk spent the next two years at the University of New Hampshire, where he matured physically and emotionally, Kane took the NHL by storm.

"It's not pressure at all," van Riemsdyk said of the comparisons to Kane. "It gives me more confidence because I put myself on a similar level and he's having good success. Hopefully, I can follow.

"It's been an incredible ride so far. This was a life-long dream of mine and I know it requires a lot of hard work, but I'm enjoying every minute of it."

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