MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — James van Riemsdyk will skate Sunday onto a rink erected on a golf course with Lake Tahoe and the majestic Sierra Nevada staring at him. It will be like looking at a painting, and the Philadelphia Flyers forward should feel comforted by the familiarity of it all.
For years, van Riemsdyk has been skating and playing on the outdoor rink near the 18th hole at Navesink Country Club, which overlooks the scenic Navesink River.
“It’s something that I always look forward to,” said van Riemsdyk, who grew up in Middletown. “I remember vividly one time playing there growing up it was snowing and snowing and snowing, so we started playing with a puck and then we had to move to an orange hockey ball because there was so much snow down that you couldn’t see the puck anymore. Certainly, a lot of great memories playing there.”
Van Riemsdyk will make more outdoor hockey memories Sunday when the Flyers play the Boston Bruins in the Honda NHL Outdoors (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS). The rink is being constructed on the 18th fairway at Edgewood Tahoe Resort on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nevada.
“This will be a really unique experience that might not ever get done in our league again. Who knows?” said van Riemsdyk, who has played in six NHL outdoor games, none of them in a setting like this. “I’m sure that I’ll be able to get a better handle on it all once we get there, but obviously it’s something that will feel familiar because of playing in a place like Navesink.”
Van Riemsdyk plays at Navesink annually at Christmastime, save for last year because of the pandemic, playing in a shinny game with family, including brother Trevor, a Washington Capitals defenseman, friends and former high school and club teammates on the outdoor rink at Navesink Country Club.
The tradition started nine years ago. Van Riemsdyk hopes it will resume this Christmas.
“Spending my summers in Minnesota, I don’t get a ton of chances to go home and see my buddies,” he said. “That’s one of the best things about it, getting to see a bunch of friends I don’t see too often and remember the glory days of when we played growing up. All those years go by, but when I get back out there on the ice with those guys it takes me right back to being a youth hockey player and how much fun we had with it.”
James’ father, Frans, came up with the idea for the game and ran it past Mike Reynolds, the hockey director at Navesink Country Club who also coached James and Trevor when they were in high school at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft.
“The next thing you know we got it going, and we had kids come up too and did a clinic for them,” Reynolds said. “James stayed on with Trevor and their other brother, Brendan. Then we played the game.”
Reynolds said he’s always busting chops, telling guys they’re late, getting on them for not backchecking, giving them the old coach spiel.
“James says it’s more for Frans than anybody,” Reynolds said with a laugh. “Frans will come to the rink a couple days early and try to get back in shape. He’ll skate with me, do drills, try to get ready for the big game. They kind of make fun of him, their father, but he gets all gung-ho for the game. James always tries to get him a goal or two. It’s great. It’s fun watching them all.”
The scene at the van Riemsdyk house when they are getting ready for the game finds Frans, James, Trevor and Brendan scrounging for gear, trading pieces to find the right ones, leaving on mismatched equipment if need be, and making a mess.
When they arrive at the club, they pick teams and play for a few hours before enjoying some postgame drinks in the cold, telling stories of past games, pranks played, friendships made and more.
“It’s just as I remember it growing up,” van Riemsdyk said. “There’s always a couple of my buddies, I don’t know, the tone or the lines get a little blurry for them once they get out in a semicompetitive environment. I make sure either those guys are on my team or I’m off the ice when they’re out there. It’s always funny to see it. They leave us alone, but some of them are a little bit of a hazard out there.”
Van Riemsdyk always leaves a souvenir.
“I fire a puck out onto the golf course,” he said. “When you walk onto the rink it looks over the golf course, so I fire a puck as far as I can, and someone finds that I’m sure every spring once the golf season starts back up. There is no real reason behind why I started it other than it looks long and let’s see how far I can fire the puck.”
It used to look longer. Frans can remember James on the ice at Navesink as young as 3 years old, when they became winter members.
“We always looked at not just [as], is this the best competition, is this best for development, but just for the joy of being outside,” Frans said. “It was about getting some fresh air and remembering that this is where it starts for most guys, outdoors.”
At age 31, Van Riemsdyk has a 9-month-old daughter, Scarlett. She’ll soon skate on the ice at Navesink. Maybe one day she’ll play in the family game, the next generation taking it over.
At least that’s the hope, van Riemsdyk said.
“A million percent,” he said, his voicing rising in excitement. “That’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to.”