"I split him open," James recalled. "He was the goalie. I went for a rebound, he wasn't playing with a mask on and I cut him open ... we battled it out in that sort of setting but never competitively."
Seventeen years later, the van Riemsdyk brothers will face off in a regulation game for the first time. It just happens to be in the NHL as James and the Toronto Maple Leafs play host to Trevor and the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.
"When you're done playing, when you look back at your career, you're going to be like, 'Wow, that was a pretty special thing to do,'" James said after practice Thursday. "It's pretty rare for two brothers to play a professional sport, I think, against each other. To kind of have both of us do that is pretty cool."
Some recent brother vs. brother meetings have included Mikael and Markus Granlund, Reilly and Brendan Smith and Nick and Marcus Foligno. This one's special at this time to parents Frans and Allison van Riemsdyk not just because James and Trevor are facing off in the "Hockey Night In Canada" spotlight but because they didn't think it would happen so soon.
Trevor, a 23-year-old defenceman, was a longshot to make the Blackhawks out of training camp after signing an entry-level contract just last spring. There was joy in the family when he made the opening-night lineup and even more that he has played so well to stick around for a month and set up this showdown.
"No one expected Trevor to be where he is right now," Frans van Riemsdyk said in a phone interview. "The Blackhawks are a tremendous team, they're a veteran team, they've been in the hunt these last number of years for the Stanley Cup, have won it a couple of times and their core group is still pretty much the same. And so for Trevor to have cracked that roster is way beyond anyone's expectations."
Trevor van Riemsdyk has dressed for all 10 of Chicago's games so far and averaged 12:50 in ice time. He's still looking for his first NHL point.
Because of that, James, a first-liner with the Leafs at 25, expects his parents to be cheering for Trevor a little bit more than for him.
"Since he's still trying to maybe break his way into the league and establish himself, I think they're probably going to be pulling for him even if they don't say it, which I don't mind just because we want him to kind of establish himself and find that niche and keep going from there," James said. "I guess you'd argue that they maybe showed some favouritism to me growing up, so maybe this is him getting in on the back end now."
Frans said his eldest son of three — 18-year-old Brendan will follow his brothers' footsteps to the University of New Hampshire next year — knows his parents' view on this pretty well.
"James is probably right that we're rooting hard for Trevor to play and play well and sort of further establish himself as a guy that can be a regular contributor to the team," he said. "We probably look at every time he's on the ice with a lot more scrutiny and intensity than we do for James when he's playing."
With James and Trevor on the ice against each other for the first time in their lives, Frans said he'll continue to wear his neutral Original Six hat that features a Leafs and a Blackhawks logo. Allison might not have a split Leafs-Blackhawks jersey like Ryan and Drew Miller's mother did when they played, but Frans thinks she'll be a bit more creative.
"I'm probably taking the easy way out," Frans said. "She'll figure something out. I know she's been looking at different colour combinations. We'll see what she comes up with."
Though Frans missed James's NHL debut several years ago and he and Allison couldn't make it to Trevor's debut earlier this month in Dallas, they wouldn't miss this opportunity. About a dozen friends and family members will also be in Toronto for the momentous occasion and more will be watching from home.
It's a van Riemsdyk family celebration that James knows his parents appreciate more than he or Trevor can at the moment.
"I don't think their plan was to have two of us (in the NHL)," he said. "They wanted us to do what we were passionate about and what we loved to do and they supported us doing that. They didn't necessarily push us in the direction for hockey. We all kind of fell in love with it and went from there. It's kind of funny how it all shakes out at this point."
The brothers have come a long way from a stick to the eyebrow that cut one game short. Back then there was some pushing and shoving, and that'll continue Saturday night.
"I'm sure he won't be afraid to rub me out in the corner, and I won't be afraid to finish my check on him," James said. "So it'll be fun."
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