Ask University of New Hampshire sophomore James van Riemsdyk about his first hockey memories, skating on frozen ponds with his father as a youngster, and a quick smile flashes over his face as he reminisces. Ask him about the first goal he scored at UNH and the grin returns as he describes the play. But ask about Colin Wilson and vanRiemsdyk lights up, more than eager to talk about his close friend and fellow sophomore star.
Van Riemsdyk first met Wilson, the top-line center of the Boston University men’s hockey team, when the two entered the U.S. National Development Team program in Ann Arbor, Mich., four years ago. Van Riemsdyk, a native of Middletown, N.J., was a rising talent with a buzz already trailing him. Wilson lacked the same attention because, though he was born in Greenwich, Conn., he grew up and learned the game in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
‘The first thing I always remember about him is from our first year when we played together in Ann Arbor,’ van Riemsdyk said of Wilson. ‘Whenever the coach would tell us what we did wrong he’d always apologize to him, and the coach would always bust his chops: ‘You don’t need to say sorry to me. Just go out there and do your job.”
Though they were in the program together, Wilson said he played with every forward except van Riemsdyk during the first year. It wasn’t until the second year in Ann Arbor that the pair finally shared the ice.
‘Coach started us off on the same line and things started clicking from there,’ Wilson said. ‘All of a sudden, we became best friends because we had chemistry on the ice, so it transferred to off the ice as well.’
On the ice, the similarities between the two are evident. Tall, athletic bodies allow van Riemsdyk (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and Wilson (6-foot-2, 215) to single-handedly impose their will on a game. Both have spectacular vision and are able to diagram a play as it unfolds while making tape-to-tape passes through traffic.
Despite being the largest player on the ice most nights, both are adept stick-handlers and skaters, skills van Riemsdyk said he developed in Ann Arbor while working three times a week on power skating. Even in pregame warmups for the Wildcats and Terriers, their long strides and effortless maneuvering are on display.
Van Riemsdyk is at home in front of the net, fending off bodies and ripping shots past goaltenders, while Wilson’s game is based on grinding in the corners and working hard down low to set up teammates. Naturally, the combination was a hit during the past two years when they played on the same line for Team USA in the World Junior Championship.
‘Our styles kind of clicked right from the beginning. We’re both smart out there and we both think offensively, so it worked out really well,’ van Riemsdyk said.
The enticing skill sets offered by Wilson and van Riemsdyk made them hot prospects after earning attention for their play in the national program. The Philadelphia Flyers selected van Riemsdyk with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft, and the following year the Nashville Predators took Wilson at No. 7.
Van Riemsdyk enrolled as a freshman at UNH after the draft to improve his strength and conditioning before making the leap. For Wilson, chosen after his freshman year at BU, the opportunity to pursue a national championship with the Terriers was a major reason he decided to return for his sophomore season.
The extra time spent playing with elite competition in college hockey shows in each skater’s progress on the ice, and it has them both on a path toward the NHL after this season.
‘His skills have gotten drastically better,’ van Riemsdyk said of Wilson. ‘He’s just an absolute beast out there. You probably won’t see him lose a one-on-one battle if you watch him play the whole season. He’s so strong.’
‘[Van Riemsdyk] has gotten a little bit more grit in his game because he’s in Philadelphia’s organization, where you have to be a gritty player,’ Wilson said. ‘Riems was a little bit more skillful but he’s implemented that into his game, and I think it’s turned him into a better player.’
While developing on the ice is an ongoing process for both future members of the NHL, there is still room for them to act like the teenagers they are off the ice. Wilson recalls playing pranks on van Riemsdyk when the two roomed together during national competition, a reminder that there is still a place for fun and games between all that hockey.
Wilson and the Terriers had their way in the most recent matchup with van Riemsdyk’s Wildcats, sweeping a home-and-home series Jan. 23 and 24. With both teams in the mix for home-ice advantage in the Hockey East playoffs, there’s a chance that the two will go head-to-head once more this season.
If not, the first Flyers-Predators game next season might have an extra storyline.