In our hockey nirvana, the World Juniors championship tournament would be passionately followed by the majority of U.S. hockey fans; not only as a breeding ground for future NHL and Olympic stars, but as yet another way for our fledging USA Hockey program to test its mettle against our neighbors (OK ... "neighbours") to the north.
But how many hockey fans are aware that the U.S.'s collection of young prospects will face off against Canada in a round-robin smackdown on New Year's Eve, which will be shown on NHL Network? (After, one hopes, the Americans dispatch Kazakhstan tonight in Ottawa.)
Canada is on a run of four consecutive IIHF World Under-20 Championships; the last time they failed to win the gold was in 2004, when a USA team powered by New Jersey Devils star Zach Parise and goalie Al Montoya won the first title in the nation's history.
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The winner of tomorrow night's game advances to the semifinals, while the loser goes to the quarterfinals. Psychologically, the stakes couldn't be higher, as Canada's "drive for five" has captured the home fans' attention at a fanatical level while the U.S. is playing for some modicum of respect -- and to spoil the party.
"Everyone's pretty self-motivated, but obviously seeing that kind of [attention for Canada] makes you want it that much more. Seeing all the hype that they get," said James vanRiemsdyk, the second overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers and a key player for the 2008 USA Hockey team at world juniors.
"Everyone's excited about the opportunity to get them here in this tournament, and hopefully we can take advantage of it."
We spoke with vanRiemsdyk about the tournament last night ... as well as John Tavares's now-legendary goal, the "O.C." versus "Rescue Me," his NHL fan allegiance and a rather embarrassing photo that hit the Internet that turned out to be a case of very, very mistaken identity.
James vanRiemsdyk is a 19-year-old winger from Middletown, NJ, who currently attends the University of New Hampshire. He's the top-rated prospect in the Flyers' system one year after hearing his name chanted in the arena on draft day.
This is the true college sophomore's third trip to world juniors. The first time, he said he just "filled up the water bottles" as a spare part. Last year, he led the tournament in scoring with linemates Colin Wilson (drafted by the Nashville Predators) and Jordan Schroeder (University of Minnesota). This year, the line is reunited for the U.S. and is playing well.
As the team prepared to face Kazakhstan -- which lost 15-0 to Canada this week in a performance that would have made the Bulgarian women's team proud -- vanRiemsdyk took some time to answer our dopey questions:
PD: Are you more worried about Kazakhstan after a 15-0 defeat, or less?
JVR: No one likes to lose a game like that, so we're obviously expected them to come out hard. It's going to take us sticking to our game-plan to have a good game.
Is there a team mandate to limit the number of Borat references in your trash talking?
I guess that would be fair to do. I'm not sure how much English those guys speak anyway. I'm sure they've probably seen the movie, and heard about it enough.
How do you possibly not look ahead to New Year's Eve and Canada?
In this tournament, you just take it one day at a time. It's a grinding tournament. We'll be better off when that game comes around if we just focus on the present.
Can you guys bounce back from a loss to Canada?
I think it's going to be an important game. Obviously, we have to focus on Kazakhstan first. But then, after that game, you just have to take what's in front of you and deal with it. It's whoever handles it the best. Sometimes you can't control the hand you're given.
Did you see that Tavares goal?
The one where he batted it out of the air twice? It was pretty incredible. The kid has insane hands and he showed it on that play.
Do you have any YouTube moments?
If you type in my name and, like, "Incredible Goal," it's UNH against BU and I was going up against Kevin Shattenkirk, who's actually on this team and one of my good friends. It was my first college goal.
For the casual hockey fan who may not know all that much about you guys, what's Team USA like? Better offensively or defensively?
I like to think we have a good balance of both. There's a lot of different roles on the team that people are buying into.
We're basically just like any other teenagers in the world. We just love playing hockey.
You've had a lot of success skating with Colin Wilson and Jordan Schroeder skating with you. What do each of you bring to the line?
We're smart players. We know what to do with the puck, and pretty good away from it to. Schrades has got the wheels, and he's pretty strong as well. Colin just pretty much overpowers everyone he plays against. I don't think I've ever seen him lose a puck battle.
This tournament is a bit of a grind; what are you guys doing to try and keep things light?
Away from the rink, [the coaches] let us do what we can to relax and pretty much have their freedom. We've been watching a few TV series; there's an "O.C." group, a "Nip/Tick" group and a "Rescue Me" group.
And you're obviously in the "O.C." group, right?
I was in the "O.C." group two years ago. This year, I'm "Rescue Me."
Adam Brody to Denis Leary ... that's a solid graduation right there. I read online that you're an NHL 09 guy, right? Do you play online, and do people know it's you?
I usually play my brothers and friends, but I don't think any of the random people know who I am. My guy's name in the [EA Sports Hockey League] is "James Riemer." (Ed. Note: Or maybe "Reemer" ... we forgot to ask specifics.) My name was too difficult and long to put it in as James vanRiemsdyk. I just kept it at Riemer.
Do the other nine other guys on the ice in the EASHL know they're playing with an NHL draft pick?
I'd be interested to know. No one's said anything about it yet.
Has anyone ever asked you about the Deadspin thing, where a post featured a photo that allegedly showed you passed out and lewdly written on (NSFW) turned out not to actually be a photo of you?
That ... oh ... no one's ever asked me about it, but my buddies just laugh about it. It's obviously not me. It's a buddy of mine, and we were just messing around. As a joke I think someone put it up online and then it was just blown out of proportion.
I think one of the funniest lines, when someone showed me the site, was "vanRiemsdyk needs to lay off the Little Debbie cakes."
My buddy who was actually in the picture took a little offense to that.
Finally, you're a Flyers pick and you're from Jersey; will you finally just give up your New York Rangers fandom for good?
I haven't been back to the Garden since draft day, so I'm sure some Flyers fans will be happy to hear that. Now I can say that when there's a Flyers/Rangers game on TV, I'm rooting for the Flyers.