"Every game, I've been getting more and more comfortable in the pro game. It will be good to go through a playoff run. I'll learn a lot about myself and how ready I am."
-- James van Riemsdyk
Regardless of where the brilliant potential of James van Riemsdyk
takes him, he'll always have the pain of remembering how he started his pro career on the wrong foot.
Specifically, the left one.
That was the foot he had to cram into a right shoe before heading to his first game with the Philadelphia Phantoms. After agreeing to a deal with the Flyers in late March, he was so harried and excited that when he packed his stuff to leave the University of New Hampshire, he tossed two black right dress shoes into his bag.
He didn't discover that inconvenience until he was getting dressed en route to his first Phantoms game. By then, it was too late. So he stuffed his left foot into the right shoe and shuffled off on his way. Even worse, a teammate that van Riemsdyk asked to borrow a shoe from blabbed to the rest of the team, so everyone knew about the mental gaffe.
"I was, 'Oh God, did I really do this?'" van Riemsdyk said. "It definitely felt different. I walked into the rink and took them right off."
Considering van Riemsdyk's recent history of poise under pressure, it's unlikely he'll be making too many more similar missteps.
Van Riemsdyk, the No. 2 pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, could be the perfect player at the perfect time for the Phantoms. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound power forward has a five-star background in excelling in pursuit of the biggest stakes.
At the 2009 World Juniors, he posted 4 goals and 6 assists for Team USA. In 2008, he paced the whole tournament by scoring 5 goals and adding 6 assists. As a sophomore this season, he led UNH with 40 points.
Now, after joining the Phantoms on April 1, he's trying to shovel more coal into the engine of a speeding train. Philadelphia rallied from a 12-point deficit March 14 to finish 11-3-0-3 and take the final playoff spot in the East Division. There's always room for more talent, but only if it's ready to keep pace right away.
"The team was so hot, my expectations were I wasn't going to be counted on heavily offensively," said van Riemsdyk, who had 1 goal and 1 assist in seven regular-season games. "I know I've had some good experiences in other high-level games. I know it's a matter of me going out and being mentally and physically prepared to play the game."
Van Riemsdyk, 19, joins the Flyers' organization skating full-speed ahead while at the same time shadowed just a little by his past. He knows he had unfinished business at UNH, where he and the Wildcats were upset in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament and then fell in the second round to eventual champ Boston University this year.
"Going to UNH, one of the main reasons I went there was to have a big impact," van Riemsdyk said. "I have a lot of pride in being on good teams. I didn't have the results I wanted. I just felt I needed another new challenge. After thinking about it, I didn't (second-guess) my decision once."
Phantoms coach John Paddock, who has been watching top prospects come and go for what seems like a couple of centuries now, raised his eyebrows at the chance to drop a strapping front-liner into his lineup just in time for the playoffs. He gave van Riemsdyk the same caution that he has passed on to other generations of blue-chippers -- the jump from your previous level to the pros will be the toughest one you ever make.
"I told him this is the biggest step you are going to take. If you think this is a pretty easy year because of your profile, you're in trouble," Paddock said. "Understand you're just a player. You're not a star. But we're not expecting you to be a star. There's no expectation other than you are starting the process of being a pro."
Paddock said the initial plan was to view van Riemsdyk as the seventh, eighth or ninth forward on the team, which was a huge upgrade for the Phantoms considering his size and game sense.
Still, van Riemsdyk got an early sense of the magnitude of the moment on the first shift of his pro career vs. Albany on April 1. A simple cross-ice pass rumbled off his stick and into the boards.
"You would have thought it (the puck) was a foreign object," van Riemsdyk said. "I was trying to do things so quick out there. It's good to get those nerves out on that first shift."
Van Riemsdyk went pointless in his first four pro games before posting a goal and an assist against the Albany River Rats on April 8. Paddock envisions van Riemsdyk moving up the depth chart for the playoffs, giving him yet another vehicle to enhance a reputation that has preceded him for many years.
"Every game, I've been getting more and more comfortable in the pro game. It will be good to go through a playoff run," he said. "I'll learn a lot about myself and how ready I am."
One area of improvement is already a given. The next time van Riemsdyk needs to dress for a proper debut, you can bet he'll make sure he's a lot more well-suited for the occasion.
Whether packing or passing, taking time to pay extra attention to the little details always helps you put your best foot forward.
"The thing with hockey is you have to be ready for anything. I'm prepared for anything that comes my way," he said. "I've expected myself to perform at a high level wherever I play. It's just up to me and my work ethic. I've never really felt nervous or pressure ... nothing but confidence in yourself."