By Bob Snow
Trace the career of Toronto Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk — from his hometown of Middletown, N.J., to Sochi, Russia — and you get a clear and consistent picture of poise under pressure.
In 2006-07, van Riemsdyk led the U.S. National Under 18 Team in scoring, pumping home 33 goals and 30 assists for 63 points in just 42 games.
That set the stage for a run that might well end someday on other stages with a variety of earned hardware from Olympic gold to Lord Stanley silver.
“We knew he was the complete player entering the draft,” said Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren in June 2007 when he tapped van Riemsdyk at No. 2 overall in the NHL draft. Before the draft, Sports Illustrated labeled him the No. 1 college prospect across the 58 NCAA teams.
Heralded as the most complete package ever to enter the University of New Hampshire, van Riemsdyk had big skates to fill in a program boasting many Wildcat greats, including Jason Krog, Ty Conklin, Mark Mowers and Darren Haydar.
He did not disappoint in downtown Durham, where led the Wildcats in scoring from 2007-09 with a 28-46-74 stat line in 67 games. On most nights, his 6-foot-3, approaching 200-pound frame stood out as the best player on the ice.
Van Riemsdyk knew back then — as he did last month before leaving for Sochi — that pressure would be his middle name. “Sometimes you see guys score a hundred points in college, and then they get to the next level and their abilities don’t really translate,” van Riemsdyk told New England Hockey Journal in an exclusive interview.
Fast forward through five years since leaving college after his NCAA sophomore year, and van Riemsdyk’s abilities translate into a kaleidoscope of Flyers orange, Maple Leafs blue and white and U.S. red, white and blue.
In his rookie season with the Flyers, he played in the Stanley Cup Final; last month, he took aim at an Olympic podium.
Now, he goes back on the wing on the most pressurepacked roster in the NHL as he attempts to help bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto for the first time in 47 years (1967).
“You really appreciate the run,” van Riemsdyk said before heading to the Olympics, “and it’s always a huge thrill when you can wear red, white and blue on the international stage at an event like the Olympics. It’s pretty special and very exciting — something I’m really looking forward to.”
Did he think any advantage would follow him to Sochi? “Playing at UNH on the bigger (Olympic-size) sheet with the bigger ice surface prepared me well for knowing how to play on the bigger rink. The game is a little bit different on the bigger rink.
Having that for two years every day, you do learn how to use that.”
Van Riemsdyk was the second-leading scorer for the U.S. team in Sochi with 1 goal and four assists.
Van Riemsdyk learned a little from the end of his rookie NHL season that should help pay dividends for years.
“My first year in Philly, we played in the Stanley Cup finals. It’s tough to compare anything to that. The intensity and the speed of the game and the level of play that was going on out there showed the epitome of the game. Once you get to that point, you know what’s on the line.”
Most NHL players who have worn the Maple Leafs jersey admit that Toronto is the most pressure-packed franchise in the league.
In June 2012, after JVR had spent three years on Broad Street, Holmgren and then Leafs GM Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.) swapped two emerging impact players, with van Riemsdyk going to Toronto for defenseman Luke Schenn.
Last spring, van Riemsdyk and the Leafs came within a game of advancing in the Stanley Cup playoffs after a crushing 5-4 overtime loss against Boston in Game 7. A blown Leafs lead of 4-1 sent the Toronto faithful into mourning.
“It’s like playing for the Yankees of the NHL,” van Riemsdyk said about Toronto. “It’s one of those things here where you try not to get wrapped up as much in it. You win a few games and they’re about to proclaim you winning the Stanley Cup. Then you lose a few games and they’re ready to get rid of everyone on the team.
“There’s definitely a wide swing of emotions, but you deal with all of that. It’s physical and mental; you gotta be ready to go every night. You can’t get to high or too low. This is the biggest market there is as far as the NHL goes.”
How does he compare it with Philadelphia?
“These two markets both have their pressures. In Philly, I’d say the fans and the media have a little more bite. But the numbers in Toronto are that much bigger as far as the following the team gets. Being around the city, you go out to dinner and everybody knows who you are. You always need to keep that in mind. But it’s fun to play in two markets where they care as much about their hockey as they do.”
Get into a conversation with van Riemsdyk and, inevitably, enters the topic of best rivalries.
“All the rivalries with BU, BC and Maine were exciting to play in,” he summed up about his NCAA play. “I’d put Maine up top, then BC and BU a notch below.”
His most memorable college game? “That one against North Dakota (in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament) was wild. We were down two goals, and tied it with a second to go. And then won in overtime (6- 5). It was crazy out there.”
“Philly-Boston, Toronto-Boston or Toronto-Montreal? Wow,” he said with a long pause, deliberating about best NHL rivalries. “The Toronto-Montreal one is pretty good, but after last spring’s playoffs, the Toronto-Boston one is developing into a really good one — really fun to play in.”
Maybe that’s the key to van Riemsdyk’s ability to handle pressure. He carries a lot on his shoulders, but keeps the fun part as a priority.
“Anytime you’re a high pick, the hopes of a franchise hop on your back. You learn to deal with expectations by hoping to be the best player you can be, while enjoying the game.”
What’s his hope come spring after another year of unique experiences?
“It’s an exciting dynamic that makes you all the hungrier to get back and play in that part of the season again,” he said about the NHL playoffs.
“To lose that Game 7 in the third period definitely hurts, but you hope to become stronger and learn from it. That’s all you can do.”
Entering the Olympics, van Riemsdyk already had surpassed his NHL season high in points with 24 goals and 23 assists for 47 points in 58 games.
He is doing all he can toward the ultimate goal in Toronto.
“We want to bring the Cup back to Toronto,” he said.
Bob Snow writes for NHL.com. He will contribute a monthly special for the New England Hockey Journal into the 2014 Frozen Four about an accomplished Division 1 player at a New England college who is succeeding in the NHL.