TORONTO -– When James van Riemsdyk first learned he had to change sweater numbers, his first thought was that he might actually be trading homes.
“I got a call this summer and it was at a weird time, so I wasn’t sure if I was getting traded or something,” van Riemsdyk recalled Saturday. “When I saw who was calling me, I’m like: ‘Oh god, am I on my way out of here? What’s going on?”’
Instead, van Riemsdyk was the first member of the Maple Leafs to learn that the organization was changing its philosophy on retiring numbers. As the only current member of the team donning one that had previously been honoured – he wore Borje Salming’s No. 21 for four seasons – van Riemsdyk had to find a new fit by the home opener.
The more he thought about it, the more he warmed to the idea of a different look.
“It’s a nice change,” said van Riemsdyk. “It maybe symbolizes a little bit of a change of things that are going on around here, too. So maybe a different start with a different number isn’t a bad thing.”
Given everything he’s seen in Toronto, you can understand where he’s coming from.
Ostensibly, van Riemsdyk was part of the last Leafs’ youth movement after being acquired in a June 2012 trade with Philadelphia for Luke Schenn. The team qualified for the playoffs in the lockout-shortened year that followed and ever since, well, they haven’t.
So as the windows open and the winds of change again blow through here, van Riemsdyk is looking to re-establish himself amid the shifting dynamic. The 27-year-old winger doesn’t fret much about things he can’t control, but he is embarking on this season with a new frame of mind.
“With the way the last couple years have gone here – as far as just we haven’t made the playoffs and things like that – we’ve got some new energy and new excitement around the team,” said van Riemsdyk. “We’ve got a lot of new stuff. A new locker-room.
“There’s a lot of change and new things going on, so I guess the number is probably the smallest of those things.”
At least for his part, he got off to a strong start wearing No. 25.
He debuted the new look in dramatic fashion against the Boston Bruins on Saturday – stepping on the ice for warmups right after a ceremony where Toronto’s honoured numbers became retired ones.
A lot of effort had gone into keeping the change a secret. He had worn No. 21 in the season debut at Ottawa on Wednesday night and even took Saturday’s morning skate with those digits still on his helmet.
“I was sworn to secrecy,” said van Riemsdyk. “I didn’t even tell my parents.”
The new number was quickly recorded on the game summary, with van Riemsdyk on the ice for linemate Mitch Marner’s first NHL goal at 11:56 of the first period before he scored one himself on a backhand at 13:13.
That came with plenty of relief since it was his first goal dating back to Jan. 2 against St. Louis – a stretch that saw him miss the final 42 games of last season with a non-displaced fracture in his foot, but also fail to score while representing Team USA at the World Cup.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about that a little bit,” said van Riemsdyk.
Fresh start, indeed.
It’s been a long way back for a guy who was arguably playing the best hockey of his career when he suffered the injury. Following a 4-1 victory over the Bruins, coach Mike Babcock said that van Riemsdyk still needs to make further gains with his skating stride.
In the meantime, those that have been around will have to get used to his new look.
“That five really kind of brings out his width a little bit,” joked Kadri. “I think he looks great with it. He scored a goal in his first game so why not keep it rolling?”
“I’ve worn [No. 21] since, uh, probably 10 and under or something like that,” added van Riemsdyk.
At least he still gets to wear a Maple Leafs sweater after that unexpected call from president Brendan Shanahan over the summer.
“Borje Salming had a great career here in Toronto and it’s well deserved for him to have no one wearing his number,” said van Riemsdyk. “It was no decision there as far as being happy to switch.”