It was quite the sight for a wide-eyed rookie playing in his first NHL postseason.
Ian Laperrière, a 36-year-old heart-and-soul type for the Philadelphia Flyers, dropping to the ice to block a Paul Martin shot in the 2010 playoffs and having his face shattered and his career inexorably changed as a result.
At that point, James van Riemsdyk was just 20 years old, a second overall pick just out of college and in his fifth playoff game. But his teammate’s sacrifice has stayed with him years later and more than any other moment from his time with the Flyers.
Now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the big winger known to most as simply JVR plans to use some of what he learned from Laperrière and Co. to help the youngest team in the playoffs succeed.
“That’s pretty much the big difference – that desperation,” van Riemsdyk said, comparing the NHL’s regular season with the playoffs. “You can feel it on every shift. My first playoff, we had Laperrière taking slap shots off the face, and it was kind of a wake-up call as to ‘Wow, this is a bit more serious than the regular season.’”
Still only 23, van Riemsdyk nonetheless is one of Toronto’s grizzled vets when it comes to the postseason.
His three years with the Flyers included a trip to the final in 2010, an eye-opening seven goals in 11 games the following season and an uneventful seven games a year ago when he was recovering from injury.
On the Leafs, no one has played more playoff games and only Joffrey Lupul has scored more playoff goals, making JVR one of the few who can bring much needed experience to what will be a crazy environment in Toronto.
After nine years away, all of the players are expecting bedlam at the Air Canada Centre when the puck is dropped for what will be the first NHL playoff game for 15 of the 25 players on the roster.
“I can only imagine,” said defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, one of the career-long Leafs who will finally get into his first postseason games. “Hopefully it’s going to be crazy and I think it will. I’m really looking forward to that.”
“It’s going to be awesome,” added Ryan O’Byrne, fifth on the team with 19 career playoff games. “The fans have been waiting for this for a long time.”
To hear van Riemsdyk tell it, one of the key lessons experience can bring is just how fleeting and elusive playoff success can be.
While he went deep in the postseason right away, he also picked up on the battle stories from players like Laperrière, who played 15 years before making it to the third round and desperately wanted to make the most of his chance.
Laperrière even returned to the lineup later in the playoffs after blocking that shot, playing days after suffering a concussion and a broken orbital bone above his right eye in a decision that ultimately led to the end of his career when his symptoms returned.
Three years later, he still deals with blurry vision and headaches, issues that forced him to retire early and take on a role as director of player development with the Flyers.
“I got caught in the moment,” Laperrière lamented to reporters a few months later. “I kind of lied to myself to be part of that Stanley Cup run.”
“I’m starting to think about [how hard it is to win a Cup] a little bit more, as you play a few more years and see how lucky I was in my first year,” van Riemsdyk said. “Not only do you have to be a good player, but you have to be a little bit lucky, too, to be on a team that has success.
“It was a thrill to play in that situation and hopefully we can do some good things like that this year.”
Van Riemsdyk also seems to know the difference between making the playoffs and making a difference in the playoffs, as he called the NHL’s second season a chance for players to elevate their games and redefine their careers by showing just how much they want to win.
As someone who has been there before, he believes he’ll be ready for the challenge.
“I think that’s just when you find out a lot about players, when the chips are down and big games like that,” he said. “Those were always games I liked playing in growing up. Some people might look at it as more pressure, but I look at it as an opportunity.”