PITTSBURGH — Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk called it the pinnacle of athletic competition.
And the Middletown, N.J. native would like nothing more than to compete in the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, as a member of the U.S. men’s hockey team.
“The Olympics are something that is almost the epitome of sports,” van Riemsdyk said. “To say you’re an Olympian would be a pretty cool feat. It would be a huge thrill, and something I would be really excited about.”
The Philadelphia Flyers selected van Riemsdyk No. 2 overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Only fellow American — and Chicago Blackhawks’ star forward — Patrick Kane went higher. It was the first time in league history that two Americans were selected first and second overall in the same draft.
Van Riemsdyk, acquired by Toronto through a trade in the summer of 2012, appears to have hit his stride in his fifth NHL season. The 24-year-old is regarded as one of the top, young power forwards in the game and is making his case for an Olympic roster spot. He is on pace to shatter his career marks in goals (21) and points (40) set during the 2010-11 season. The final U.S. Olympic roster will be announced Jan. 1.
“It’s an exciting time,” van Riemsdyk said. “I feel like USA Hockey has come a long way, as far as just the depth of players. There’s a lot of guys in the running for the team and the depth continues to get better. I think there’s a lot of good players in this country, so it would be a huge thrill to make the team.”
Teammate Phil Kessel, widely regarded as one of the best American-born players currently in the game, was a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team that captured the silver medal in Vancouver. Kessel, a right winger, who plays on the same line opposite van Riemsdyk in Toronto, has been instrumental in the young forward’s development.
“I think we’ve had some good chemistry since I’ve gotten here, and we’ve been able to feed off each other and play some good hockey,” van Riemsdyk said. “Any time you’re playing with a guy like that, it definitely helps.”
Dan Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ coach who will also coach the 2014 U.S. Olympic hockey team, has certainly taken notice of van Riemsdyk and Kessel.
“Ninety percent of my viewings of players have been through video on a laptop,” Bylsma said before the Penguins defeated the Maple Leafs 3-1 on Monday. “[This game is] one of the few live viewings I get to have on players this year. I’m going to watch Phil and James a lot differently than if it had been a non-Olympic year.”
Sidney Crosby, who scored the overtime game-winner to lead Canada to the gold medal in 2010, is also well aware of the chemistry van Riemsdyk and Kessel have together on the ice.
“I think, with players like that, you’re always aware when they’re out there,” Crosby said. “They’re both pretty sharp around the net and they don’t need much time or space to score.”
Van Riemsdyk might be eyeing his first trip to the Winter Games, but he is no stranger to international play. He cut his teeth in the U.S. National Team Development Program, finishing in a fifth-place tie all-time with 65 goals. He also had 124 points, good for seventh in program history.
“The U.S. program was definitely a time I look back on fondly, and I have some of my best friends from my two years there,” van Riemsdyk said. “It was a huge thrill to be able to do that.”
Van Riemsdyk was on the gold-medal-winning team during the 2007 World Under-18 championship and led the tournament the following year, scoring five goals and 12 points for the United States, which captured a silver medal. Van Riemsdyk helped the United States win bronze in the 2007 World Junior Championships and registered 11 goals and 21 points the next two tournaments, though the United States did not medal in either year.
“I’ve always enjoyed sporting the red, white, and blue in different international tournaments,” van Riemsdyk said.
He might get a chance to do it again, on the biggest international stage in Sochi.
“I think we’re trying to focus on the day-to-day of playing for the Maple Leafs, but obviously the Olympics are in the back of your mind,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s tough for it not to be.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.