ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Before Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk were top-five NHL draft picks, they were kids heading off to the U.S. National Team Development program.
Kessel left Madison, Wis., in 2003, and van Riemsdyk left Middletown, N.J., to make the trip to Ann Arbor. It wasn’t easy.
“You’re in your comfort zone. You’re coming out here and there’s no promises as far as what can happen,” van Riemsdyk said. “For me it was almost the start of my journey, just leaving home and not really knowing what to expect from there.”
Kessel and van Riemsdyk excelled there and then eventually developed into stars with the Toronto Maple Leafs. On Wednesday they were named to the U.S. team heading to the Sochi Olympics.
“This is, since I came to Ann Arbor, something that I’ve always wanted to do is be able to play at the Olympics,” van Riemsdyk said while wearing the U.S. jersey after the Winter Classic. “It’s a huge thrill for me and I’m very excited.”
That the announcement came after the Winter Classic made it a cool moment for the Leafs linemates. That it happened at Michigan Stadium, down the street from where Kessel and van Riemsdyk grew into men on the ice made it special.
“It’s kind of crazy how it comes full-circle,” van Riemsdyk said.
Kessel had a goal and an assist in six games as a member of the silver-medal-winning U.S. team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The 26-year-old represented the U.S. at the 2006, 2007 and 2008 world championships.
“Obviously it’s an honour,” Kessel said Tuesday, before the Olympic lock was officially notified. “Whenever you get a chance to represent your country it’s a big deal.”
This is the first Olympic appearance for the 24-year-old van Riemsdyk, who has been Kessel’s linemate all season. That could continue to Sochi.
“James van Riemsdyk happens to play on a line with Phil Kessel, and I would strongly assume that the coaches would try to work them into the situation where they’ll be on the same line,” U.S. general manager David Poile said.
Van Riemsdyk played at the world juniors in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and then the 2011 world championships.
All that came after spending time with the U.S. National Team Development Program.
“My two years in Ann Arbor I look back very fondly of, just the friendships I made, what I learned on the ice,” van Riemsdyk said. “What I learned about myself as far as growing up and stuff, too.”
Van Riemsdyk’s growth has been a steady process, culminating with his time in Toronto. The No. 2 pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, he spent two seasons at the University of New Hampshire before going pro.
The Flyers signed van Riemsdyk to a US$25.5-million, six-year contract in the summer of 2011 but traded him to the Leafs in exchange for defenceman Luke Schenn before it went into effect.
Van Riemsdyk has developed into a first-liner with the Leafs, recording 33 goals and 29 assists for Toronto, including a goal in Wednesday’s Winter Classic.
Kessel has experienced even more success with the Leafs since the Bruins traded him in 2009 for two first-round picks and a second. Boston fans made the chant of “Thank you, Kessel” famous because one of those picks turned into Tyler Seguin, who was part of the 2011 Stanley Cup team, while another became defenceman Dougie Hamilton.
But Kessel hasn’t disappointed in Toronto, putting up 30 goals in each of his first three full seasons and scoring 20 during the lockout-shortened 48-game season in 2013. His scoring prowess earned him a US$64-million, eight-year deal that begins next year.
Kessel goes into Sochi in his hockey-playing prime, joining Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings, the injured Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild among the top U.S. wingers.
Vancouver forward Ryan Kesler, Montreal forward Max Pacioretty and Winnipeg winger Blake Wheeler made the team, as did Detroit goaltender and U.S. National Team Development Program product Jimmy Howard.
“This is really surreal,” Howard said after playing in the Winter Classic and then learning he was on the team.
Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators was not named to the roster, but he could still go if Parise or injured New York Rangers winger Ryan Callahan cannot play.