No detail too small for van Riemsdyk, Leafs’ meticulous hockey nerd

Leafs' hockey nerd headed for career year

TORONTO — Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk has a vitamin container so elaborate that teammate Tyler Bozak is reminded of his grandma’s pill box.

“He’s got every vitamin in its compartment and I couldn’t even tell you what 95 per cent of them are,” a smiling Bozak says.

An admitted hockey nerd who’s enjoying the best season of his NHL career, van Riemsdyk is always on the hunt for an edge when it comes to training, nutrition, equipment or even shampoo — Bozak says he uses a different kind than the rest of the team. No detail is too small for the 27-year-old, from the flex and curve of his stick to more unusual stuff like shampoo and all those vitamins.

“I think always growing up I was always really a freak,” the New Jersey native says of his meticulous approach. “When you take care of things like that and you’re trying to find an edge in that way too, you feel better game in and game out and you’re able to play better game in and game out.”

It’s why on a recent day when the Leafs didn’t practise van Riemsdyk was on the team’s practice facility ice testing new skates for a good 20 minutes.

He got the bug for a detailed approach early in his NHL career, observing how thorough veterans like Chris Pronger, Danny Briere and Ian Laparierre were in their routines. He also came into contact with Ben Prentiss, a Connecticut-based trainer who opened his eyes to different methods for the proper care of his body.

Prentiss thought van Riemsdyk, with his unusually long legs, looked more like a basketball player than hockey star. He wanted van Riemsdyk to focus on strengthening his hips — an issue for hockey players and perhaps more so for someone with that type of six-foot-three frame. 

Van Riemsdyk’s biggest initial challenge though was diet, a common source of trouble for 20-somethings not used to eating right according to Prentiss.

“We try to follow that 65, 70 per cent rule where he’s eating well 70 per cent of the time,” said Prentiss, who’s worked with Martin St. Louis, Jonathan Quick, Max Pacioretty, and a number of other NHL stars.

Prentiss advocates the elimination of sugar, replacement of various carbohydrates, addition of healthier proteins, and more organic grass-fed foods, among other things.

It’s a shock to most initially, including van Riemsdyk.

But he stuck with the program over six years and even after moving his off-season home to Minnesota found a means for keeping up with his long-time trainer. Prentiss helped him construct a replica gym — complete with personalized touches like his number on an Olympic platform â€” which allowed van Riemsdyk to complete the usual workouts on his own.

Van Riemsdyk, who now trains with Andy O’Brien (known best for working with Sidney Crosby), missed only two games to injury in his first three seasons with Toronto and has played in every game this year after missing the second half of last season with a broken foot. 

He’s known for being rigid in his routines.

Van Riemsdyk, for instance, will stand in front of an empty net at the end of each morning skate and tip pucks fired on goal by a teammate. At the end of the pre-game warmup he’ll stand in the crease and test his hands with shots in tight.

He thinks a consistent approach will lead to consistent performance and indeed, he’s currently riding a 10-game point streak (three goals, 11 assists).

“That’s the key, because obviously everyone (in the NHL) is a talented player, but over the wear and tear of the season if you’re able to feel a few percentage points better consistently then that obviously adds up over the course of 82 games,” van Riemsdyk said.

“I try and screw up his routine every now and again,” Bozak said with a laugh. “He’s pretty strict on it so you can’t really get away with anything.”

Much as van Riemsdyk picked up his approach from veteran teammates, Bozak sees players in the Toronto dressing room starting to follow along with some of van Riemsdyk’s methods.

“To be honest, I’m sure he does way more stuff than we even know about outside the rink,” said Bozak.

Headed for career-highs in just about every offensive category, van Riemsdyk believes he’s never played better. 

He thinks subtle improvements to his on-ice performance under head coach Mike Babcock have helped, such as how he positions himself in the defensive zone to help free pucks for a quick transition to offence. Then there’s the addition of creative rookie Mitch Marner on a line with Bozak, not to mention a deeper lineup with more threats for opponents to guard against.

Babcock thinks van Riemsdyk added more power to his legs in the off-season, helping him create more offence down low in the offensive zone (with those “unbelievable hands”) as opposed to the rush-centric style of his past.

All the other stuff might just be the key to a longer, more consistent career even if his teammates give him a hard time for it (and they most certainly do).

“I like to think that there’s a method to the madness,” van Riemsdyk said. “And hopefully I’m still playing 10 years from now and I’m laughing at them.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press