ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Making his third appearance in the Winter Classic and his first with the Toronto Maple Leafs, forward James van Riemsdyk already had plenty of outdoor experience before Toronto beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on Wednesday.
It may have been van Riemsdyk's first time playing at the Big House, but it's a building he was already very familiar with before becoming an NHL player.
As a member of the United States National Team Development Program under-18 team, van Riemsdyk lived in Ann Arbor for two years. While developing the skills that would one day take him to the NHL, he attended Pioneer High School, which is located down the street from Michigan Stadium. So it was slightly surreal to prepare to play in a game at the stadium as hundreds of revelers tailgated in the Pioneer High School parking lot.
"I think this is the culmination of everything today. That was sort of the start of my journey. Coming to Ann Arbor and not really knowing what to expect. Just coming here with big dreams and big hopes," van Riemsdyk said. "Obviously playing in the game and being named to the Olympic team, that whole combination was pretty great."
The day couldn't have been more perfect for the New Jersey native, who scored Toronto's opening goal with 37 seconds remaining in the second period. After celebrating Toronto's win, he was then named to Team USA's roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
More than six years since leaving Ann Arbor to play at the University of New Hampshire, van Riemsdyk still has fond memories of his time with the USNTDP. As a teenager away from home for the first time, he never could have known that he was standing in the shadow of an iconic stadium that would one day host one of the signature moments in his hockey career.
"I went to football games and stuff like that, so I got to enjoy all that. It's a great building," van Riemsdyk said. "It was two years that I look back very fondly on. I enjoyed my time in Ann Arbor and all the experiences I had with hockey and all the friends I made. It was definitely a huge thrill for me here."