James van Riemsdyk is chomping at the bit. The 27-year-old American forward who plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs has represented his country on several occasions, but perhaps the World Cup is the tournament he’s been looking forward to the most.
“I got a call from Brian Burke,” he recalled about being named to the team early in the year. “I was very excited. Ever since they announced the tournament, it was a huge goal of mine to play for this team and represent my country. With the injury I had last year, I wasn’t sure if that would affect my chances, so it was nice to be a part of this.”
That injury, a non-displaced fracture of his left foot, occurred this past January and prevented him from playing the rest of the year. Nonetheless, he has played enough for USA Hockey that his abilities were well known.
As a 16-year-old, he played at the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, winning gold, and a year later he won silver with the same team while earning the IIHF Directorate Award as the best forward and leading the tournament in scoring with 12 points.
In 2007, van Riemsdyk also played in his first of three straight U20 events. That spring he was selected 2nd overall by Philadelphia at the NHL Entry Draft behind countryman and Team USA teammate Patrick Kane.
Van Riemsdyk also played two games at the 2011 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and was a member of the Americans’ 2014 Sochi Olympics roster. In between, he was traded by the Flyers to Leafs on 23rd June 2012, going from a playoff team to a struggling team.
On the positive side, he was going to a team that needed his scoring, and he delivered. In his first season, the lockout-shortened 2012/13 campaign, he had 18 goals in 48 games, and he reached 30 goals in his first full season with the Leafs.
With the World Cup, though, coach John Tortorella won’t need to rely on JVR for goals. “They talked a bit about my role,” van Riemsdyk explained, “but when you get here, you check your own agenda at the door and do whatever they tell you to make sure the team has the best chance of winning. So whatever they tell me to do, I’ll do it and put my heart into it. I’ll play whatever role they see fit and leave everything out on the ice. I’ll be ready for it.”
Van Riemsdyk did not dress for the team’s first exhibition game against Canada in Columbus on Friday night, but he was in the lineup the day after in Ottawa for the re-match. He didn’t score, but he was robbed by a great glove save by Canada’s goalie Corey Crawford and looked solid all night. Not having played since late January, his energy was impressive.
“I think having the longer off-season with the injury gave me some time to work on a lot of things with my game,” he continued. “It’s exciting for me to start a little earlier than a regular training camp two or three weeks later. I’m rarin’ to go.”
As a result, he is perhaps happier than other players to play the tournament in September as opposed to an Olympics time slot during the NHL season. “There are benefits to both times,” he said, diplomatically.
The team’s two games against Canada this past weekend have been feisty, chippy, hard-hitting games, and that’s as JVR would like it. “Emotions are a big part of it, especially when you’re representing your country. There’s extra pride in that. It can get heated and emotions boil over, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
More than most players, he also has to get used to playing against his NHL teammates in this World Cup. The Leafs have players on the Czech team (Milan Michalek), Finland (Leo Komarov), Russia (Nikita Zaitsev), Sweden (Jhonas Enroth), and Team North America (Morgan Rielly).
“I think a lot of guys will be in that situation,” van Rimsedyk said with a shrug, “but everyone knows how it is. You have to put that aside. There are no friends on other teams during the tournament. You have to compete hard against them and do your job.”
Once the World Cup is over, van Riemsdyk will walk his equipment down the corridor of the ACC and put it in his Leafs’ stall, ready for a new season. Unlike previous years of frustration and disappointment, 2016/17 is full of hope and promise for the team coached by Canada’s Mike Babcock.
“There’s definitely a lot of optimism, a lot of potential for the team,” he agreed, now that the team has first overall draft choice Auston Matthews in hand as well as junior sensation Mitch Marner. “But it’s up to us to do something with that. It’s great right now, but let’s see what we do with that when the puck drops. It’s exciting for us.”
It’s a busy September for van Riemsdyk, but after an eight-month layoff, that’s okay. And although he’s first representing the U.S. and playing in an international event, Toronto is the crux of his efforts in all ways. He may get booed by the ACC faithful if he scores for the Americans this month, but next month those goals will be welcome and will bring with them thunderous applause.