For a player who has enjoyed several moments of glory at the international level, Team USA forward James vanRiemsdyk certainly made every last moment of his World Junior experience count, finishing his eligibility in style with an overtime goal for the ages in his final junior-aged game wearing the red, white, and blue.
Facing a resilient Czech Republic squad with a shootout fast approaching, vanRiemsdyk picked up the puck deep in the Czech end and turned towards the net. Quickly running out of skating room, the Philadelphia Flyers’ prospect slid the puck behind him and flipped the puck at the net, with his stick between his own legs, over a shocked Czech goalie to send Team USA to a 3-2 victory in the fifth-place game at the 2009 World Junior Championships.
"That was the first for something like that," vanRiemsdyk said. "The guy kind of fell and I didn’t have as much room as I would have wanted cutting across the net, so I knew I had to keep it short side. Really I don’t know what happened there — I just kind of let things flow."
Fittingly it was a memorable goal for a player who will long be remembered in the annals of Team USA history. With that goal, the Middletown, NJ native finished as the penultimate American scorer behind Jeremy Roenick (1988-89). When the final buzzer sounded, vanRiemsdyk ended his World Junior career second overall — ahead of such illustrious American international hockey legends as Mike Modano, Brian Rolston, Zach Parise, Doug Weight, Pat Peake, and the Ferraro brothers — Ray and Chris. He finished this year’s tournament with six goals and four assists, leaving him one goal and three points behind Roenick in both categories.
vanRiemsdyk explained that he was aware, but not focused on the record.
"You always play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back, but some of the guys had told me beforehand where I might stack up in this tournament and I think I ended up second in a couple of categories, so that’s pretty cool," he said. "The knowledge that you can be in the same category as some names like Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano and some of the guys up there, that’s just a huge thrill to be a part of that."
Team USA head coach Ron Rolston said he credits his young forward for staying true to what matters in the team concept. "[As coaches we didn’t focus on] the record. We certainly thought about his production and what he could do offensively for us," Rolston said. "He’s one of our young, up-and-coming players that obviously has to keep getting better, but is someone that can be a difference-maker offensively. That’s good to hear, obviously, but I don’t think that James really thought about it.
"He played the tournament to win and be successful, and we’re certainly happy to have him play for us.
For vanRiemsdyk, the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championships in Ottawa offered a chance to prove true the old adage that the third time is a charm. Unfortunately, the U.S. team fell short of overall expectations, but ended on a high note, defeating the Czech Republic in a game that decided fifth place — and marked the end of the Philadelphia Flyers’ prospect’s world junior experience.
"It’s been a long three years playing in this tournament. It’s a great tournament — obviously some of the highest competition under 20 in the whole world," he said. "It’s been a great tournament to play. Obviously it would have been nice to play for the gold, but I went out with a good one, so that’s a good way to end things."
Last year, in Pardubice, Czech Republic, the 6’3, 211-pound vanRiemsdyk was a member of the Team USA squad that finished fourth, losing to Russia in the bronze medal game. That year the forward led the tournament in scoring courtesy of his five-goal, six-assist performance in six games, which resulted in his being named to the tournament all-star team. His first experience at the WJC came in 2007 and it was in Leksand and Mora, Sweden that vanRiemsdyk enjoyed his greatest success — winning bronze with the club after losing a shot at gold in a shootout to eventual champion Canada during the semi-finals. In seven games that year he only scored one goal.
This year marked the second straight season that Rolston could look down his bench and call upon number 21. He explained that vanRiemsdyk’s success this tournament is all the more impressive due to the fact that the opposition was keying on him.
"This year that line was a focus for other teams and their job was to shut him down, so it was more of a challenging tournament in the sense that they had to work harder for what they go, whereas last year they might have been under the radar a little bit as an underage line," Rolston said. "They had another great tournament. We want them to go back and improve and be leaders on their teams and continue to get better and help our country in the future."
It was that familiarity with his teammates — specifically linemates Colin Wilson and Jordan Schroeder — that is a big reason why vanRiemsdyk feels that this most recent tournament was that one that’s the most special to him.
"All of them have been near and dear to me, but I’d say that this one was probably the most special, probably because I knew a lot more of the guys on the team here and I’ve made a lot of great friends here — some of my best friends are here; some of my best friends [with whom] I’ll probably stay in touch for the rest of my life," he said. "This is a huge experience to share with guys like that.
Wilson, an assistant captain this year with Team USA, explained that vanRiemsdyk’s value to the team was key to any success they had. "He’s obviously been really important to this team. He can produce offense from nothing and that’s what he did during his play and that’s why he’s a leader on this team," he said. "Even though he didn’t have a ‘C’ or an ‘A’ on his jersey, he definitely was a leader out on the ice by getting pucks on the net, getting shots, and scoring key goals like there in the [final game]."
"I think what you learn is to keep a business-like attitude. Even though we lost to Canada we came out the next night and we were flying. Me and Reems were going hard — we got a few chances and even though we ended up losing, we came out hard."
Wilson and vanRiemsdyk are good friends off the ice, and Wilson admitted that the subject of the scoring record came up.
"We didn’t talk about it as a team, but me and Reems talked about it separately because we both kind of are aware of those kind of things and we both knew he was going to be close going into the second week if he had the tournament he was capable of having," Wilson explained. "We definitely did talk about it before — it wasn’t something that he strove for, but he mentioned that, ‘If I do this, I’ll be one of the leaders for the USA’ and I said, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ It wasn’t something that he goes and talks to the team about, it’s just that me and him are a little bit tighter."
And although vanRiemsdyk came up just shy in his efforts, Wilson said that he is proud to be associated with his friend and teammate’s accomplishments and will look back fondly on this time for years to come.
"It’s fun to be a part of that. He’s a great player and it’s great to see him do well," Wilson explained. "Me and him are really great friends and you want to see your friends do well. I’d like to think that I helped a little bit — you know, I pushed the puck up the boards on that goal! [laughing] It’s nice to be able to look back and say I played with a player like that."
vanRiemsdyk was chosen by the Philadelphia Flyers with the second overall selection in 2007 (behind fellow American star Pat Kane). After a successful stint with the U.S. National Under-18 Team in 2005-06, wherein he scored 18 goals and 29 points in 37 games, he joined the University of New Hampshire. Last year he averaged over a point per game, with 34 points in 31 games. This season he’s off to an even more dramatic start with 26 points in 17 games to date. In addition, the robust vanRiemsdyk plays with an edge, racking up 36 PIMs last year and fast approaching that total this year with 31 minutes already served in the penalty box. He ended his World Junior career with 12 PIM to his credit (eight, two, and four respectively in 2007, 2008, and this year). His final penalty came in the third period of his final game — but vanRiemsdyk is still trying to figure out what he did to earn those two minutes.
"I kind of got hit there and I was just defending my space there a little bit. Some other guys jumped in. I honestly don’t know what happened — guys started swinging," he said, laughing as he added. "I don’t even know how I got a penalty because I was on the ground taking these punches. It got a little chippy but that shows the kind of competitiveness of both teams out there. That’s good to see that even in a game like this both teams want to win."
He said he was conscious of adapting his physical style of game to the international tournament. "It’s a little bit of a different style of game coming from college and playing in North America when you’re playing international rules," he said. "Obviously you still want to play physical and finish your checks out there, but it’s a matter of just being smart and not letting things get the best of you."
As a third-year player, vanRiemsdyk explained that he felt an obligation to impart his knowledge and experience to his teammates. "[It’s] not necessarily pressure [on myself], but I want to go out and show the way in which we play — kind of serve as an example to some of the younger guys who may be in this tournament and are a little nervous," he said. "As you move up in the hockey ranks, that’s something you have to do — show some leadership, especially when you’ve been there before."
That leadership manifests itself in all aspects of his play — including stepping up at key moments, such as the overtime of his final game, added his coach. "He’s a great player and it was a great play, obviously. And that’s what James does — he scores goals and he scores big goals. He doesn’t need a lot of touches on the puck to do that," Rolston said. "That was certainly a big goal for us and it’s nice to have finishers that can make a play like that and finish those goals. That’s what that game needed and that’s what James brings."
Looking back on his tournament experience, vanRiemsdyk credits his three years with Team USA for improving his on and off-ice abilities. He’s also seen growth within himself over the three tournaments.
"It definitely helped me raise my game to another level. The first year I got a good taste of it, playing a smaller role. Last year I didn’t have any expectations going in and I had a good tournament, playing with Colin and Jordan and playing with some pretty good players," he said. "This year I had some expectations coming in and I definitely think it was a good tournament for me to play in and really helped me grow as a player."
Wilson has been along for the ride and added that success has not changed the type of person vanRiemsdyk is. "He’s an all-around nice guy and you’re never going to see him putting another player down or getting real angry or something like that," Wilson said. "He’s just a nice, calm guy and he’s really dedicated. He knows what he wants — and that’s to play in the NHL — and he’s dedicated to being a better player and striving towards that goal."
That goal will have to wait — at least for a while.
"It’s back to school for the rest of the season," vanRiemsdyk said. "We have a lot work to do if we’re going to make the NCAA tournament and get some post-season accolades there. We kind of turned the corner, we won three straight going into the break and we had a game today that started at four, but I’m not sure how we did today — hopefully we got the win and we can keep it rolling."
And while his mind is on his present team, vanRiemsdyk explained that his potential future club has been present in his development. "During the season they’ve kind of let me do my thing and focus on playing for UNH," he said. "Whenever I do need anything they’re only a phone call away. I do talk to Jim McCrossin, the strength coach every once in a while. He’s a first-class guy and he’s obviously helped me out a lot with strength and conditioning and that’s really helped my play this year."
Although one chapter of his youth has closed, vanRiemsdyk is not willing to commit to opening a new one by turning pro early.
"I’m just trying to wait until I’m ready.[The Flyers] have obviously given me their opinions as to what they’ve thought I should do, but I’m kind of going to my support group, which would be my parents, my whole family, and my family advisers to help me make the decisions about hockey," vanRiemsdyk said. "For this past year they obviously recommended that I come back and keep getting better, keep getting stronger.
"This year we really haven’t had that talk yet, but I’m sure we will at the end of the season."