PHILADELPHIA - Long before he was a budding star for the Philadelphia Flyers, James van Riemsdyk was a big New York Rangers fan.
Brian Leetch and Mike Richter were more than champions and star players.
They were proof that Americans could play hockey, too.
"Loved those guys," van Riemsdyk said. "Any American, you always kind of have a special connection. Being American, you take some pride. Brett Hull. Mike Modano, I loved."
Raised in New Jersey, van Riemsdyk was a prospect, even in youth hockey. He also played partially at a private high school in the Garden State, the genesis of a career that led him all the way to being the No. 2 overall pick of the 2007 NHL draft. In his third season in Philadelphia, van Riemsdyk has already played in a Stanley Cup final and been rewarded by the Flyers with a six-year contract extension.
Van Riemsdyk is also one of the standouts of the current crop of great American players in the NHL. As players like Hull, Modano and Chris Drury have retired, they've been replaced by a new wave of all-star Americans that are among the best at their respective positions.
Ryan Callahan captains the Rangers. Phil Kessel leads the NHL with 11 goals and 22 points entering Wednesday. Tim Thomas won a Stanley Cup with Boston last season. Zach Parise is one of the top goal scorers for New Jersey. Patrick Kane twice bested van Riemsdyk, first as the top pick of the '07 draft, then leading the Chicago Blackhawks past the Flyers for the championship in 2010.
"We already have a pretty young Olympic team and the USA team won the gold in the juniors last year, so that's a good sign," Parise said. "I see a lot of good players from the colleges coming up and making it in the league now. There are younger, more talented players, even younger than me, moving up."
Americans are coming from more than traditional hockey areas like Minnesota and the New England states. Van Riemsdyk was the highest draft pick out of New Jersey since New Brunswick's Brian Lawton was taken first overall by Minnesota in 1983.
"If you look back 15, 20 years, it was unheard of if there was even a guy drafted from Jersey, let alone a first-round pick," van Riemsdyk said. "There's no reason to think it can't become a hockey hotbed."
Anaheim's Bobby Ryan is from New Jersey. Washington Capitals defenceman John Carlson was born in Massachusetts, but played youth hockey and high school hockey in New Jersey.
The state known for Bruce Springsteen could find a rising number of prospects become stars in the NHL.
"I know when I played in New Jersey, we'd produce teams that went to the national tournaments and hung right with teams from those states," Carlson said.
"You're now starting to see guys make it to the NHL from there, and it's only going to continue. There's a lot of talent there, in New Jersey, and it's improved talent. It's kind of a place now, where players coming out of New Jersey can decide on whether to go to college or whether to go pro. Maybe before, there were guys striving to get to college. Now, they're pushing for more."
But how much more the Americans achieve outside the Stanley Cup is in doubt. An aging group of American veterans flamed out at the Turin Games, kickstarting a youth movement that led to a silver medal in Vancouver.
St. Louis Blues forward Jamie Langenbrunner, one of the older American stars easing the transition to a new generation, captained that Vancouver team. He said the result there can only help Americans earn more respect at the international level.
"You don't have to win every time, but you've got to be a tough team. You can't be a walkover," he said. "The Olympics were a good step."
But there's still work ahead. The U.S. has struggled at the World Championships.
"I don't know if it's put on quite the same pedestal for the Americans as it is for other countries," Langenbrunner said. "But I think the young kids you see in the league right now, there's so many good young Americans. It's in good hands for a while. They should continue to be in that upper group."
It's still in doubt whether NHL players will be making the trip to Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Olympics. Van Riemsdyk has represented his country at various world championships and would love to try and earn Olympic gold.
"When you get a chance to do that, it gives you an extra sense of pride," he said. "That's something I never take for granted. Any chance I can pull on that red, white and blue sweater, I'm always anxious to do it."
Players like Kane and van Riemsdyk have long, distinguished careers ahead of them and plenty of time to try and match the careers of great American players like Pat LaFontaine, Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick, Modano and Leetch.
"I don't think we look at it so much as carrying the torch for those guys. They were all great players, and they did so much for our game, for our game in this country, certainly," Carlson said. "But we are our own players, and we're going to have our own impact on American hockey as we continue to develop in this league."