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Kessel, van Riemsdyk reflect on return to Ann Arbor

by Dan Rosen

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There is no way Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk could have envisioned his dream coming true in the same place where it was born eight years ago, but that will likely happen Wednesday after the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, when he and right wing Phil Kessel are expected to be named to the United States Olympic team.

USA Hockey will name its team Wednesday from Michigan Stadium after the conclusion of the game; the announcement will be carried live by NBC.

"It's kind of crazy how it comes full circle," van Riemsdyk said following practice Tuesday.

Kessel and van Riemsdyk, Toronto's top two scorers, played for the United States National Team Development Program based in Ann Arbor. They attended Pioneer High School, which is across the street from Michigan Stadium. They lived with host families who will be at the game Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC).

They still talk fondly about this city and how it was the place where they started to turn into men and develop the skills that got them to the NHL.

"For me it was almost the start of my journey, just leaving home and not knowing what to expect from there," van Riemsdyk said. "My two years in Ann Arbor, I look back very fondly of the friendships I made, what I learned on the ice and what I learned about myself as far as just growing up. It's definitely a place that will always be special for me."

Kessel arrived as a 15-year-old from Madison, Wis., in 2003 and stayed two years before moving on to the University of Minnesota. He just missed van Riemsdyk, who arrived in 2005 as a 16-year-old from Middletown, N.J.

"I enjoyed it here and it taught me a lot about hockey," Kessel said. "You start training real hard here and you grow up as a hockey player."

The fact that it's been more than eight years since he left home not knowing what to expect is somewhat shocking to van Riemsdyk, who at age 24 is in his fifth NHL season.

"You come out [to the NTDP] and there are no promises as far as what could happen to you," van Riemsdyk said. "You don't know things like how you're going to like it, if you're going to be playing a lot, how the hockey is going to go. I really enjoyed my time here and it was great as far as helping me develop as a player."

He said some of his best friends are from the area. He took his former billets out to dinner in Ann Arbor on Monday.

"It's a great city, a great place to live," van Riemsdyk said. "It was a huge thrill for me to play for the U.S. program here."

Kessel and van Riemsdyk aren't new to The Big House either. They attended Michigan football games when they were playing for the USNDTP and still recall the atmosphere being like nothing else they have seen.

"It was crazy," van Riemsdyk said. "When Michigan scored, every touchdown they got there would be students in the student section getting thrown up in the air and coming back down. It was just a crazy atmosphere and a lot of fun to be a part of something like that."

Kessel is hoping for a similarly raucous atmosphere Wednesday.

"If you've ever been to a game here, the college atmosphere is different for people who haven't been to it," Kessel said. "It's a pretty neat atmosphere. Hopefully it's something like that [Wednesday]. It'll be pretty cool."

The only way it gets better for them is if Toronto wins and they hear their names called as Olympians after the game.

Kessel played for the USA in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Just as he was eight years ago, van Riemsdyk is still dreaming about what that would be like.

"It would be a huge thrill," van Riemsdyk said. "It would be awesome."


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