James Reimer has successfully made the move from small-town Manitoba to Red Deer, Alberta with a firm focus on a career path to the NHL.
Born in Winnipeg, Reimer grew up about 90 minutes north of the provincial capital in Morweena. He played his minor hockey a few minutes down the road in Arborg, a town of approximately 1,200 people where the community’s rink was a hub of activity during the winter months.
“I really didn’t have a real sense of what the WHL was all about back then,” the soft-spoken Reimer recalled. “I read about it in books and things, but until I was about 15 years old I wasn’t really aware of who many of the top goaltenders were.”
By that time, the Red Deer Rebels had expressed an interest in Reimer, making him their fifth-round pick in the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft. During his 16-year-old season with the Interlake Lightning of the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League, a team based in the town of Gimley, Reimer garnered the Top Goaltender Award.
“In Gimley, my coach Jim Platt was a big motivator,” Reimer said. “He had such a passion to win and also taught me some technical things. And we’ve expanded on some of those things in Red Deer.”
Since the move to Alberta, Reimer has developed to a level where the organization is confident they have their go-to guy for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
“He’s definitely athletic and he’s a hard worker,” confirmed Cam Moon, a former WHL goaltender and the Rebels veteran radio play-by-play man. “After winning the award in the Manitoba midget league, it was expected that he would develop into a good WHL goalie.”
At 6’2, 205 pounds, Reimer possesses the size to effectively cover the net. It’s an attribute he spoke to when asked about how he sees his style of play evolving.
“I work hard on my positioning and playing angles,” Reimer said. “A big part of using my size might make it a bit intimidating when I come out to the top of the crease without showing shooters much of the net.
“But maybe one of the downsides of being a bigger goaltender is maybe some of the quickness. It’s something I’ve been working on with our goaltending coaches. I want to continue making my feet quicker.”
Through 28 games this season, Reimer has posted a 2.62 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. As a 17-year-old rookie last season, Reimer played 34 games with a 2.81 goals against average and a .910 save percentage. He says he benefited from his relationship with a pair of veteran netminders in Red Deer, Andrew Leslie and Josh Lepp.
“During the first half of the year, I played with Andrew,” Reimer explained. “The biggest thing I learned from was work ethic, mostly through watching his off-ice commitment. He was such a hard-working guy.
“After he was traded, Josh Lepp came in. Coming from Kelowna where they had won championships, he taught me about things like attitudes coming into games. He really brought that aura of a winner.”
Moon agrees the experience was valuable for Reimer.
“To be able to play as much as he did at 17 tells you about his skill level,” Moon said. “And playing with Leslie and Lepp, well, both guys are real good people. They were good guys for James to play with because they are both very mature and intelligent. They’re good mentors.
“It was Lepp’s fifth year in the league and he was a guy who saw a lot of games and situations. He played very well for us down the stretch last season and James really learned and developed from him being here.”
This season, the Rebels were fast out of the gate in the WHL’s tough Central Division. With outstanding offensive production from imports Martin Hanzal (PHO) and Kirill Starkov (CBJ), Reimer knows he can give the team a chance to win every night. Less than halfway through the regular season schedule, he is already very close to surpassing the number of games he played all of last year. Reimer is comfortable with the workload in Red Deer.
“I certainly want to be playing,” Reimer said. “And I’ve worked on a routine to help me physically and mentally. Throughout the week I work with the coaches, lots of hand-to-eye coordination, ball work and stretching. I do some work with weights to keep my legs strong. And we’re developing mental preparation techniques to really help me to get my mind more and more into the games.”
Reimer shrugged off the suggestion that superstitions might play a role in his routine as a goalie.
“I’m not sure I feel like I’m superstitious,” Reimer laughed. “I put my equipment on from the left side to the right. But I don’t know, really, where is the line between superstition and routine?”
At the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver, Reimer was chosen in the fourth round, 99th overall, by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Coincidentally, Reimer has always looked up to Ed Belfour, a former Leaf and a fellow southern Manitoba native.
“I didn’t really have a guy I looked up to until I was older,” Reimer said. “In the NHL, I’ve always liked watching Eddie Belfour. I liked that it seemed a lot of shots would hit him in his chest, mostly because of his great positioning.”
While Reimer didn’t attend the Maple Leafs main camp, he enjoyed the experience at the rookie camp. He maintains regular contact with the NHL club.
“We actually keep in contact every week,” Reimer explained regarding his conversations with Leafs’ goaltending coach, Steve McKichan. “Every Monday, he wants to keep in touch and we talk about the games and practices. The whole training camp experience, well, it’s positive in the sense that I had a good rookie camp. I didn’t get to main camp, so I wasn’t able to compare myself to that level, but I know still have to improve.”
Moon suggests Reimer has elevated his game this year, in part due to the time spent with the Leafs.
“He was so fired up when he returned,” Moon remembered. “Just getting in there and seeing how big the Leafs are in southern Ontario and then playing at that level. It helped him to be working with pro guys. When he came back at the end of the preseason he hit the ground running here. Now he’s got his first camp out of the way, so next time he goes he’ll know what to expect.”
The Rebels won the 2001 Memorial Cup, instilling some winning tradition and expectation in Red Deer, a growing city of closing in on 200,000 people. The Rebels are the ‘show’ during the winter months and Reimer enjoys the profile of the club.
“It’s been very good here because the city, the fans are not overly critical,” Reimer said. “There is pressure, but it’s a good, supportive thing. The fans want wins and that’s okay. It’s great atmosphere. There’s excitement and expectation and it’s interesting coming in. Guys here have an expectation to win. There’s a confidence here I hadn’t really experienced before.
“We have solid team all around. Sure, we maybe don’t have the flash of a Vancouver or a Medicine Hat, but we’re a team that sticks together. We’re solid defensively and we have scoring up front. We’ve got great chemistry here.”
Moon is confident the goaltending duties in Red Deer are in good hands for years to come.
“James has proven that he can play, he has been outstanding and I think he will be in the future,” Moon said. “The team can build around him and also our next guy, Morgan Clark, a 16-year-old. That confidence in the goaltending ensures this team can compete.
“There have been some ups and downs this season. But there were early wins over Vancouver, Medicine Hat, Calgary and Brandon. When the teams have been successful here in the past, they have had very good goaltending from guys like Shane Bendera and Cam Ward.
“I think Reimer has shown he can be the next one here.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.