Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of stories checking in with college hockey personalities, past and present.
James van Riemsdyk is used to moving around. Though still only 23, van Riemsdyk has played on so many different teams, at so many different levels, it’s hard for him to think back on them all.
But he manages to do it just fine. Indeed, the left wing takes memories of all his stops with him wherever he goes. It’s part of what has made him a prolific scorer in the NHL. It’s part of what has made him a valued teammate, as well.
Now in his second stop in the NHL — with the Toronto Maple Leafs after an offseason trade from the Philadelphia Flyers — van Riemsdyk is blossoming. The 2007 No. 2 overall pick, who played two seasons at New Hampshire and left high school in New Jersey to play in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, has fully grown into his 6-foot-3 frame, and has been the menacing presence in front of the net Toronto hoped he would be as it shoots for the playoffs in this shortened season.
Through 29 games, van Riemsdyk led the Maple Leafs with 14 goals, was third in scoring at 22 points, and was second only to forward Phil Kessel (103), with 90 shots on net.
Earlier in the season, van Riemsdyk, a Middletown, N.J., native, sat down with USCHO to talk about the past, present and future. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
USCHO: You’re no stranger to big markets. You grew up outside of New York City and played in Philadelphia. But is Toronto on an even different level from a hockey standpoint?
van Riemsdyk: It is. And it’s great. There aren’t many players who are fortunate to have their first two NHL teams be in Philadelphia and then Toronto. There’s nothing like being a Maple Leaf. Everyone knows you, everyone is always talking about the team, good and bad, and it’s amazing to be a part of something that means so much to so many people.
USCHO: Does that status affect your daily life, outside of the game, in Toronto?
van Riemsdyk: It does. You get recognized even when you’re out doing the simplest things. I went to get my dry cleaning the other day, and got some looks from people.
USCHO: There’s a thought that players who changed teams this offseason might have had a particularly difficult time transitioning to their new locker room because of the lockout. That chemistry might become a problem because there was little “get-to-know-you” time with the new teammates. Did you feel any of that?
van Riemsdyk: I didn’t. It certainly helped that I knew some of these guys already. I was able to come in, get comfortable and just get going on hockey. We all have jobs to do here, we’re a young team that’s trying to establish itself, win some games and get to the playoffs. We’re all after the same thing here, we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction, and I think you can see that on the ice.
USCHO: You left New Hampshire after two seasons. Obviously, it was a calculated move, the Flyers had big plans for you, and so it was the right call. Less than two years after leaving, you were playing for Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Finals, so you did something right. But do you have time to reflect on the decision?
van Riemsdyk: I have great memories there, for sure. But the NHL is the NHL, and the Flyers were in a position to bring me to Philadelphia and it was just a matter of something they felt that it was the right time. But I’ll always look back fondly on my days at New Hampshire, for sure.
USCHO: Philadelphia can indeed be a hot-and-cold town. They love you when you’re winning, and not so much when you’re losing. You had 15 goals in 2009-10, when the Flyers made the Finals. You had a breakout year the next, with 21 goals, and were a dominant force in the postseason. But last season, after injuries, you played in only 43 games, and things took a turn. Is there anything you regret in Philadelphia?
van Riemsdyk: I wish I could have stayed healthy last season, sure. We had a good team, we felt like we had a chance to do some things in the postseason, but things don’t always work out in this game. Philadelphia is a great town, with great fans, and you just take that stuff in stride. I loved it there, loved the staff and my teammates. But you don’t have too much time to reflect in the NHL.
USCHO: When you returned to Philadelphia in February, in a 4-2 win for Toronto, you received a mixed reaction from the crowd but still more cheers than boos. There were also some positive signs being held up in the stands. Did you notice any of that?
van Riemsdyk: I couldn’t hear much. You take the ice, there’s so much going on, the music, and the place is just loud in general, so I didn’t hear much of the reaction. The signs, yeah, I did see some of them, and that was great to see. I feel like I left everything on the ice each time I took the ice as a Flyer, and it’s great that people see that.
USCHO: The growth of this game in your home state has been incredible in the last 20 years. There are now more than 150 high school teams in New Jersey, and a lot of people credit your success with playing a part in that. When you get back to New Jersey, do you get a chance to see how far hockey has come in it?
van Riemsdyk: It’s unbelievable. There’s a rink being built in Middletown now, my hometown, and I never saw that coming. I’m running a camp there this summer, and it should be fun. But it’s great, there are travel organizations popping up all over New Jersey now, and there are a lot of Division I players, and some are getting to the NHL, too. Great to see, and I’m sure it’ll continue.
USCHO: Speaking of high schools, you were able to sneak back and see your school, Christian Brothers Academy, play for a state title last season in Newark when you were rehabbing your injury. Do you enjoy keeping tabs on your previous stops?
van Riemsdyk: I wish I could do more of it, yeah. Online these days, when we’re on the road, I try to keep track of CBA and New Hampshire, and it’s fun to see how the programs just keep up their success.