I’ve been wanting to write something like this for awhile. Really ever since I first re-signed with Philly.
The past few weeks, not playing and all, has given me a little more time to reflect on how different things are here now versus when I left six years ago.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, a lot of things are the same.
The team culture, the fans, the quality of the players — all the things I’d experienced when I was first drafted by the Flyers — are still very similar. And that’s a good thing. It’s a big reason why I wanted to come back.
But I won’t lie, there are quite a few things that are different. We’ve got a brand new practice facility with state-of-the-art everything all over the place. We got a lot of young faces who are out of this world good. We got Gritty — the best mascot in the history of sports. I don’t even know if you can just call him a mascot at this point, he’s more of a movement.
And then there’s me.
I’m a different player and person than I was the last time I played here. I’m really thankful for that because I think all of my experiences these past six years have changed me for the better.
That’s why our game this Saturday against Toronto is pretty special to me. The years I spent there were some of the most foundational of my life. It’s a place that I know will always mean a lot to me. So before I take the ice, I wanted to share a few thoughts, memories and thank yous.
When I first got traded to Toronto, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I knew it was a place that was crazy about hockey. But I don’t think I fully understood exactly how crazy.
One of the things I discovered pretty early on was that when you’re a member of the Maple Leafs, there’s no such thing as anonymity. Restaurants, grocery stores, urinals — doesn’t matter where you are, you’re gonna get spotted. And it’s not always people asking for selfies, or stuff like that. A lot of the time they’ll hit you with some serious hockey conversation. Even if you’ve never met them before, they’ll feel like they know you because they follow the team so closely. We’re all in it together. I mean, there’s a reason they literally have a picture of people playing hockey on Canadian currency.
The recognition comes with perks — just not always for yourself. Like sometimes I’d go out with my youngest brother, who looks quite a bit like me, and if I went to the bathroom, by the time I came back, he’d have people buying him drinks and taking selfies with him. He never bothered to correct them.
I know that me getting to play in Toronto meant a lot to my whole family. My dad actually attended Dave Keon’s hockey school when he was a kid, so he definitely appreciated all of the Leafs’ history and tradition. My parents made so many trips from New Jersey to watch me play in a Leafs sweater — which was great of them.
Dad also became something of a minor celebrity in his own right. I got to shoot a commercial with him a few years back. I’ll never forget the time that, after it aired, we went out to a restaurant together and a fan walked up to our table. I was facing away from him, but from behind meI heard him say, “Are you James Van Riemsdy—”
I started to turn around, but he kept going.“—k‘s dad? I thought you were great in that commercial!” That was classic.
It was honestly incredible to see how people reacted to meeting a member of the Leafs. But, at the same time, when you’re surrounded by that kind of attention, it can be kind of a culture shock — especially if you’re not used to it. That’s why, looking back, I feel really, really lucky to have had someone like Dion Phaneuf around.
I can’t really ever thank him enough for everything he did for me. When I first got to Toronto I was 23, which is an age at which you think you are sort of starting to figure things out, but in reality there are so many unknowns. Dion mentored me and really showed me what it meant to be a professional. He was larger than life, was connected to everyone and was always around to help with anything I needed. One of the reasons I was able to hit the ground running after joining the Leafs was because he made me feel so comfortable. I think there are plenty of other guys who are just as thankful to Dion for the same reasons.
It also didn’t hurt to play on a line with Bozie and Phil. In general, it’s hard to imagine my time in Toronto if Bozie hadn’t been there. We had different skill sets, but they fit together really well, and I always felt good when I saw his name next to mine on the lineup sheet. A lot of things changed while I was with the Leafs — players came and went — but Bozie was a constant.
And I guess as far as Phil, the best way to describe him is … as advertised.
Before every game, after the coach speaks to the team, there’s always a little time to do whatever you need to do to get ready before heading out to take the ice.
Early on during my time in Toronto, me, Phil and Bozie were sitting together after the coach spoke, when Phil turned to me with this dead-serious look and says, “James, what’s the plan tonight?”
I wasn’t sure what he was asking, exactly. It was also weird because everyone called me “Reemer.” So I responded, “Uh … I don’t know. You tell me.”
And then, in a perfect Phil deadpan, he says, “Give me the rock.”
“Give you the rock?”
And he repeated slowly, “Give … me … the … rock.”
Then he left the locker room.
Bozie and I just died.
And that exchange kind of became our tradition before every game. Phil asking me what the game plan was. Me saying, “Uh, let me guess, I know this one … give you you rock?”
“Give. Me. The. Rock.”
Still makes me laugh when I think about it.
I guess that’s all to say when I look back on my time with the Leafs, there were some amazing games, but what I think I’ll remember most was the great players around me, the passionate fans I was playing for, and how I felt like I was immersed in the culture of hockey at all times. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and one that changed me for the better.
I’m particularly grateful to all the people behind the scenes who did everything they could to make our lives easier. Papi, Bobby and Kev, our equipment managers, who never made me feel like an idiot, no matter what crazy thing I needed. Paul, Jon and Beaner, from our medical staff, who were a huge part of my day-to-day routine and helped keep me firing on all cylinders over the course of a long season. And of course Doc Forman, our team doctor, who would always go the extra mile for any of the players and their families. There are so many more people — too many to name — who always went above and beyond to help us out with anything we needed off the ice. I’m thankful to every single of one of them.
No, my time in Toronto wasn’t perfect. There were some really rough years, as everyone knows. But I’m honestly thankful even for all the losses and the opportunity to be part of the process of rebuilding the team. I was really lucky to have guys like Bozie, Gards, Mo, Naz and Leo around throughout it all. When you go through tough times, you see teams sometimes split at the seams. But that never happened with us. We always were a really tight-knit group, and I think our chemistry played a big part in turning things back around. I’m proud of that.
My last couple of seasons in Toronto I was so impressed by all the young guys they brought in. You could just tell that they were going to become something special. It was honestly a thrill for me to be able to see them develop in real time, watching guys like Auston, Mitch and Willy establish themselves as some of the best players in the league. Safe to say, the franchise is in a pretty good spot.
And thanks for all the tap-ins, Mitch.
I feel like I experienced a bunch of very distinct eras of Leafs hockey in a short period of time, and I’m grateful for all of it — every single fan I met, every coach, every player, every game and every moment. I’m ready to play the best hockey of my career in Philly because of everything I experienced in Toronto.
Toronto let me know a few weeks before free agency started that they were planning to go in another direction. I appreciated it because it gave me the opportunity to enter free agency with a more open perspective. It made the transition a lot easier for me.
I knew wherever I went, I would be spending the prime years of my career there so I wanted to make sure I felt really good about the situation. Not long after the free agency period kicked off, Claude Giroux shot me a text. He’s not just one of the best players in the league, but also a really good friend and teammate. We spoke on the phone for a bit, and I also talked with a few other guys who I knew from the last time I was here. Every person I spoke to felt good about the direction of the franchise and especially the room they had. They wanted me to be part of it.
When I weighed all my options, it just became clear that this really was the best option. Everything felt right. This was where my next chapter was meant to unfold. And there was something about the opportunity to finish what I started that I felt like I couldn’t pass up.
G was actually the first person I called after I made my decision.
“Hey, I got one question for you.”
“Yeah Reemer, what’s that?”
“Are you going to pass me the f***ing puck?”
And we pretty much went from there.
Honestly, if you would have told me a year ago that I’d be back in Philly, I wouldn’t have believe you. It’s really rare to get a second chance at anything in this league. So just to have the opportunity to be part of this franchise again almost feels surreal.
Things didn’t start off the way I wanted, with the injury and everything. That was a rough go. But at the same time, it didn’t discourage me. I’m a more resilient player now than I’ve ever been. And I owe a lot to Toronto for that.
I know it’ll be kind of weird going back to the ACC and seeing so many familiar faces as a member of a different team. I’ve tried to prepare myself for it, but I still know it’ll be an emotional experience for me. Ultimately, I’m really looking forward to it.
Because when it comes down to it, we all know that there’s nothing better than Saturday night hockey in Toronto.