What Christmas Means To James van Riemsdyk

23 Dec

The box was tempting. Sitting under his family’s Christmas tree, a young James van Riemsdyk, maybe five or six years old, was overcome by curiosity. Early on Christmas morning, he tiptoed down the stairs and carefully peeled away a corner of the wrapping paper to see what was inside.

The young van Riemsdyk saw just enough to know that inside was a tabletop version of bubble hockey. Careful not to get caught, he tiptoed away, quietly, and ran back upstairs.

“I came back and acted surprised when I opened it that morning,” said van Riemsdyk. In all his 22 years, that is his favorite Christmas present.

“I think it was actually called Bobby Hull Hockey,” said his father Frans. “It created a lot of shouting and hooting and hollering over the years, with everyone squaring off on that table. It sure got a lot of use, that’s for sure.”

The gift was a precursor for what Christmases would be like in the van Riemsdyk family for some time to come. Ever since James and his brothers, Trevor and Brendan, were younger, Christmas has revolved around hockey.

There have been tournaments out of town. There have been tournaments out of the country. There has even been the family’s own version of the Winter Classic.

“Usually the day after Christmas we’d be heading off to those [tournaments], which is something we’d always look forward to,” said the Flyer. “Obviously hockey has been a big part of our lives growing up, so we’ve definitely sacrificed some time at the holidays.”

So have his parents. At this point there have been many more Christmases away from Middletown, N.J. than there have been at the van Riemsdyks’ home, but they won’t complain.

“There have been a lot of Christmases over the years where we haven’t been able to be at home because we were just in places or tournaments where it didn’t make sense to head home,” said James’ father, Frans van Riemsdyk. “We’ve never considered it a hardship. It was always an opportunity to go somewhere else and take a walk around.

“A lot of the places were sort of fun and you get to see how other people are living and stuff. It was a fun exercise. A lot of people say ‘Oh you made all these sacrifices and hardships,’ but for all of us it was great to take the kids in the car and go on a little road trip.”

James is now in his third NHL season. His younger brother Trevor is a freshman at University of New Hampshire, James’ alma mater. Brendan, the youngest, will soon turn 16 as a sophomore in high school. The hockey careers of the three boys have taken the family on the road when they’d prefer to be at home with extended family.

“When I got a little bit older, when I went away to Ann Arbor, I wasn’t home for Christmas for the next four years, I think,” James recalled. “We played in this tournament, the U17 Challenge, and that’s where Canada has a few teams there, the U.S. has a team, a few other countries and then I played in three World Juniors after that, so that’s around Christmas time and you’re with the team for the whole process [of the holidays].”

James spent a lot of time on the ice and not with his family, but they didn’t seem to mind following him around, even to western Canada.

“It was Saskatchewan in late December, early January, and I think some of the current Flyers can tell you, it gets a little frosty that time of year,” said Frans. “We played in Regina and Saskatoon and a bunch of other smaller cities and it’s just remarkable how enthusiastic these smaller communities were about visiting teams that were coming in.

“It wasn’t just the U.S. team. It was the Fins and the Germans and the Swedes and the Czechs and so it was a lot of exciting times.”

Things have calmed down in that sense over the past few years. Now that the oldest van Riemsdyk son is an established NHL veteran and the middle son is in college with a third playing locally, the newest tradition has been not traveling.

“The last two years and this year we have this tradition where Christmas Day we get the whole family out and a couple buddies out to Navesink Country Club,” said James. “There’s an outdoor rink there so we play on Christmas Day with a couple friends and my old high school coach.

“I remember the first time thinking it was really early and I’m thinking ‘ahh I don’t wanna be playing hockey. It was nonstop for the last four months, I need a little break here,’ but I ended up going out and it was a great time and now I look forward to doing it every year.”

Even his father takes part and although there isn’t much competition, Frans is just pleased to watch his three sons skate, just like they had for hours when they were younger on a lake that used to freeze over when the boys were younger and winters in Middletown were fiercer.

“Just when you thought, ‘My goodness, will they ever get tired of this?’ they never seemed to,” he recalled. “In those early years in particular, if you didn’t come out there and drag them off the ice, they’d probably be on the bottom of the river with the ice having melted.”

It’s a time that Frans cherishes even more now that he and his wife Allison are quickly becoming empty nesters. Only Brendan is left at home with James in Philadelphia and Trevor in Durham, N.H., both moving up the ranks in their hockey careers.

“This year I think we’ll be fortunate in having everybody home, which will be a nice treat,” said Frans. “We can’t take that for granted anymore with everyone’s schedules the way they are.”

With one son in the NHL and one son in the collegiate ranks, the van Riemsdyks now do twice the travel. Frans usually makes it to most of the divisional games and some other local road affairs for James. He was at recent games in Montreal and Washington.

This holiday season, the van Riemsdyks will have an outdoor series of their own. Not only will they be in Philadelphia for their second Winter Classic, on Jan. 7 they’ll return to the familiar confines of Fenway Park, where they experienced their first Winter Classic, for Frozen Fenway. Trevor’s University of New Hampshire Wildcats will play the Maine Black Bears.

“My parents get to see two outdoor games this year,” said James, “which they’ll be fired up for.”

He’s now a little too old and too big to be as unassuming running up the stairs early Christmas morning. But about 10 years after the miniature version, James and his brothers got the real deal, a full-size version of bubble hockey.

These days, he and his brothers have outgrown that too. Now they play on ice and, somehow, are even more competitive than they were on that small bubble hockey table. When James first peeled the wrapping paper back, he thought he was only getting a gift, but it turns out that miniature hockey game has blossomed into much, much more.

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