By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — James van Riemsdyk, the former Flyer now a Toronto Maple Leaf, had a lot of choices his sophomore year at Christian Brothers Academy (Lincroft, N.J.). The U.S. National Team Development Program wanted him to head to Ann Arbor, Mich., and a number of junior programs were inquiring, too.
But the future National Hockey League star and newly minted 2014 U.S. Olympian opted to do something else: A rare choice.
Van Riemsdyk opted to stay at Christian Brothers his sophomore year to win a state championship. He’s one of many on the U.S. Olympic team who originated from American high school programs, like Max Pacioretty of New Canaan (Conn.) and Taft (Watertown, Conn.); Ryan Callahan, Hilton (N.Y.); T.J. Oshie, Warroad (Minn.); Kevin Shattenkirk, Brunswick (Greenwich, Conn.) and David Backes, Spring Lake Park (Minn.).
Some, like Backes, played throughout high school. Others, like van Riemsdyk and Callahan, left early.
“But you always have that connection to where you started playing and to the community that always supported you,” said Callahan, the New York Rangers star, just before leaving for the Sochi Olympics. “Today, there are a lot of guys in the NHL that went to traditional U.S. high schools, and that just proves how high the level has grown with U.S. hockey. You go back 25 years ago, I don’t think you’d get as many players from U.S. high schools in the NHL or playing at the world-class level.”
Van Riemsdyk stayed for another reason. He wanted to leave Christian Brothers a winner.
“It’s still common where a lot of kids leave early to play junior hockey, whether it’s the USHL or Canada, in the Ontario Hockey League, which are highly scouted leagues and if you’re young enough and talented enough to go, it’s also a great route to a collegiate career,” said Christian Brothers coach Ryan Bogan, who coached van Riemsdyk and his younger brother, Trevor, who played all four year at Christian Brothers before a brief stint with Eastern Junior Hockey League New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs and is now a junior star at New Hampshire with an NHL future ahead of him.
“They wanted James to come out to Michigan his sophomore year and he told them they had to wait until his season was over in 2004-05,” Bogan recalled. “James told them he had a commitment to Christian Brothers for a run at a state title and wanted to follow through with that. James led CBA to a state title his sophomore year. He thought more about his teammates than himself, which says a lot about his character and the family he comes from.
“I think it comes down to enjoying your high school years. There is a bigger picture here, but playing in high school provides more time to be a kid. James wanted to enjoy being a kid and playing with his friends for a little longer. That’s what it’s really all about.”
Bo Hickey, the coach of New Canaan, coached Pacioretty his sophomore season. Hickey saw the commitment that Pacioretty dedicated to improving. He saw the hours Pacioretty labored to make himself bigger and stronger.
“In this world, no one goes unseen these days,” said Hickey, who’s been coaching high school sports for more than 40 years. “Max was a good hockey player when he was in high school, physically small, but nature took care of the rest as far as height goes. Max was a driven person, as most kids that age are, but Max did everything he could physically in terms of advancing up. Max was even very careful diet-wise even as a sophomore in high school. He lived the dream, but he did what he had to do in the offseason to chase the dream. Max is one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever been around.”
Hickey said that the dearth of ice rinks is still an issue, but it’s not as big a problem as it once was. High school teams often battle to get ice time with local youth club teams, compared to more venues available in Canada.
When Hickey, who played one season for the Denver Broncos, returned to the New Canaan area in the late 1960s, there was one skating rink between New Canaan, Norwalk and Greenwich. It’s grown considerably since then.
“American kids are faced with obstacles, with the price of the composite sticks, skates and ice time, it adds up,” Hickey said. “But if you’re talented enough, and driven enough, like Max, who played only four games his freshman year because of a broken collarbone, they’re going to find you.
“U.S. high school players are being found, because they know now what more has to go into making themselves better.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.