Ask any hockey player when they had the first notion to get in the game, and you’re bound to get a list of memories from the early years. The interest has to spark from somewhere, and for Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, like many, it began with two greats, his Dad and Gretzky.
“Thank my dad, when I was younger he always had a Wayne Gretzky VHS tape called “Above and Beyond” on TV and I would be captivated by it. It kind of started with that,” said van Riemsdyk. “Took some steps to start skating and then a learn to play hockey program and it kind of built up from there.”
While Gretzky, like many of his peers unknowingly got him into the game, it was a different player that peaked interest for the Middletown Township, New Jersey native growing up.
“Adam Graves, he was always the guy that I would watch,” said van Riemsdyk. “Being a big Rangers fan when I was younger, he takes the cake. Gretzky would’ve been the easy answer, but Graves was my favorite.”
It’s easy to look up to players on the ice, but a key factor to success is remembering the people that surround you off of it.
“No hockey players get to where they are without their support system,” said van Riemsdyk. “For me, that’s my family, my parents, my brothers, aunts and uncles, all of them. They all helped along the way, to get me to where I am today. Obviously they’ve made a lot of sacrifices for me and I appreciate all that they’ve done.”
In hockey, there comes a definitive time in a players career where the game changes. While you still hold the passion, the expectations and work ethic needed to take you to the next step can be overwhelming. Often, a small piece of advice at a young age can help mold the way you think about the game. While sources will vary, for van Riemsdyk, it was his Dad’s advice that still plays a part to this day.
“Around 13 or 14, when guys started to train off the ice in the gym and all the extra stuff, he put a quote in my room. It still rings in the back of my head, every season it helps me to get ready for the year,” said van Riemsdyk. “‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.’ That’s just something I’ve tried every year since then, just to be as prepared as possible for a season. It’s putting in time in the summer, to make sure you’re ready to be the best player you can be when the season comes around.”
Professional hockey players generally come from traditional hockey markets, Canada and Minnesota for example, even New England. New Jersey isn’t often found on the list of states to produce NHL talent, but it is a great state with a growing hockey population. The passion for the sport within the community will certainly be showcased as the 2013 NHL Entry Draft hits the Garden state this month.
“I think it’s very exciting for hockey in Jersey, you look over the years and it’s come a long way,” said van Riemsdyk. “I think Jimmy Dowd did a great job with kind of a rough start, which paved the way for a lot of us. Now you see there’s probably, 5,6,7 guys from Jersey that are playing in the league. It’s come a long way and hopefully it continues to get better.”
The oldest of three boys, it’s easy to understand why both younger brothers, Trevor and Brendan are following in van Riemsdyk’s skate strides. Setting a good example is customary for an older sibling and van Riemsdyk lends support and advice where he can to both brothers, chasing the same dream he’s successfully found.
“I do try to go about my business and do stuff that my family would be proud of,” said van Riemsdyk. “I try to help them whenever I can. If I see things that I know I would have wanted to know, when I was a little bit younger at their age, I try to pass that stuff along. Hopefully I can help chase after their dreams. They’re the same way that I was at their age, they dream of playing in the NHL one day. Obviously it’s a one day at a time process, but I try to help them out whenever I can.”
The van Riemsdyk’s middle son Trevor, is currently finding collegiate success at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), the same university that helped develop James’ career. Two years at UNH proved to be a learning experience both on and off the ice.
“That was huge, I think that’s when I did a lot of growing up. For me, personally, just the college hockey experience in general, I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said van Riemsdyk. “The quality of competition on the ice, while learning how to grow up off the ice. You try to get that transition where you’re learning to live with a billet family in junior for a year and then you’re going to college and living in the dorms for a year by yourself. Then, the next year you’re paying rent in an apartment and buying groceries and taking care of all that stuff. I think it helped me grow up a bit. Socially as well, just learning different aspects that you need to take care of in the real world.”
Drafted second overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers, van Riemsdyk chose to forgo his final two years of college eligibility at UNH in April of 2009. The decision allowed the remainder of the 2008-09 season to be spent on an amateur tryout agreement with the Flyers American Hockey League affiliate Phantoms. Signing an entry-level contract with the Flyers for the 2009-10 season gave van Riemsdyk ice time in an NHL arena, and an assist in his first game. But the art of transition proved to be a key point during the summer of 2012. In exchange for Luke Schenn, the Flyers organization, sent van Riemsdyk from Broad Street, to Maple Leaf Square.
“It’s been exciting for me, they both have a great passion for hockey. The key difference is off the ice, when you’re not around the rink, the passion that they have for the Leafs up in Toronto is second to none,” said van Riemsdyk. “You can be walking into a restaurant, going to pick up your dry cleaning, people know exactly who you are and what you’re doing and what you’re up to, all that good stuff. They just want to see the game do well, they live and die for Maple Leaf hockey. It’s an honor to play for a city with that kind of passion and hopefully we can have some success going forward for our fans.”
The city of Toronto has an undeniable love for the game and bringing playoff hockey back to the city is an experience that all the Leafs players want to have again, and again.
“When people ask me about hockey in Toronto, I think the one image you can always go to is, one of our games on the road when you have 10-15,000 people in Maple Leafs square outside in the rain going nuts, watching the game on the big screen out there,” said van Riemsdyk. “It just goes to show the passion that the fans really have. We feed off that enthusiasm and excitement that they bring, so we’re all really excited for next season.”
Playoff hockey is and will always be a cut above the rest. It’s teams from the greatest sport in the world, fighting for the ultimate prize, Lord Stanley. It’s a fight that never stops, even when the last horn sounds and you’ve been eliminated from the running.
“To see the growth that we’ve made as a team. We got better and better as the year went on, obviously the way the season ended left a sour taste in a lot of our mouths,” said van Riemsdyk. “We did a lot better than people were expecting, the bar has been raised again and it’s going to be up to us to continue to raise that bar, continue to get better and hopefully keep chasing after it and get closer to our goal of winning the Stanley Cup.”
The off-season schedule holds different regimes for many, but the premise is ultimately the same – perfect the game and improve yourself.
“[My trainer], he does 1 hour slots throughout the day, 1-on-1 with the guys. I’m usually in the afternoon, so I generally sleep in until 10 or 11, get some breakfast, maybe get some treatment if that’s on the docket for that day,” said van Riemsdyk. “Then I head over to the gym from 2:30 – 4 pm, get my work in and then kind of relax for the rest of the day. Maybe watch some movies or TV shows, it’s pretty low key for me on an average day in the off-season.”
Anyone can attest to the type of dynamic play van Riemsdyk brings to the ice, but it’s often more difficult to see a players personality off of it.
“I’m laid back, I’d say I’m a pretty easy guy to get along with,”said van Riemsdyk. “I like to enjoy life in the summer, but at the same time, I know there’s work to be done as far as putting in the time and making sure you’re a better player when you come back in the fall. There’s a fine line between doing all that and knowing when the time to work is, and what you’ve got to do to make sure you’re ready to go.”
Hockey players are often marked as some of the nicest, most relate-able athletes in professional sports, van Riemsdyk is certainly no exception.
“I’m glad I still have that, I remember the first couple of interviews I did during the draft and stuff. That’s one of the things people would comment on,” said van Riemsdyk. “I’m always in a good mood, laughing, having a good time and enjoying the moments. We’re lucky to be able to do what we’re able to do, I think I have some fun with it, but I love what I do and it brings it out of me.”
While hockey players are generally nice, they often face misconceptions about themselves based upon on ice actions or lack thereof.
“People might say that I don’t show enough emotion, but my personality, I’m one of those guys that keeps things inside a lot. I know how much I care about what I do, I know how much I love it,” said van Riemsdyk. “But I don’t necessarily wear it on my sleeve as far as maybe banging your stick on the ice, or breaking it on the boards and stuff like that. I think that’s the biggest misconception about guys that are a little bit more reserved, people might perceive it as we don’t have the same passion for the game and that’s very, very far from the truth.”
One perception that should ring true for Toronto fans, van Riemsdyk is a perfect addition to the Maple Leafs roster. While fans may hold passion for their home team, James van Riemsdyk holds something as well, the perseverance to bring continued excitement and success to a city that he now calls an in season home.