Frits van Riemsdyk, a Sun City Hilton Head resident, grew up in the Netherlands as an avid speedskating fan. But this Winter Olympics, instead of watching the Dutch dominate the sport, van Riemsdyk is watching the Olympic debut of his grandson, ice hockey player James van Riemsdyk.
James van Riemsdyk, 24, a left wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, is playing the same position for the U.S. men's ice hockey team during the Sochi Olympics. It's an achievement the young athlete worked hard to earn, his grandfather said.
"Hockey was always his life," van Riemsdyk said. "James was put on skates before he could walk."
At 16, James -- "JVR" to his teammates -- began international play for the U.S. National Team Development Program. He was a star at the University of New Hampshire when, at 18, he was drafted second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2007 NHL draft. In 2012, he was traded to the Maple Leafs, where he has become the team's No. 2 scorer behind Olympic teammate and Sochi roommate Phil Kessel.
Now, the two are part of a U.S. team that is undefeated through three games, needing three more wins to earn gold. The U.S. faces the Czech Republic at noon Wednesday, with the winner advancing to the semifinals.
The Americans haven't won an ice hockey gold medal since 1980, the year of the "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid, N.Y. -- an upset of the heavily favored Soviet Union in the semifinals.
This year's team pulled off a less seismic upset when it topped Russia 3-2 on Saturday. Frits van Riemsdyk was up early that day -- something he rarely does -- to watch it live.
"It was fabulous hockey," van Riemsdyk said. "It was a nailbiter."
Van Riemsdyk said he hasn't had much contact with his grandson since he left for Sochi, mostly because of James' busy schedule, but also because his grandson dislikes talking on the phone. He prefers to text, something van Riemsdyk finds difficult on his old flip phone.
Van Riemsdyk has been to Toronto several times to see James play professionally, and had a visit from him for his 80th birthday in 2012.
Van Riemsdyk's son, Frans, gets to see James play most often, using his frequent-flier miles from his work in international shipping to attend as many games as possible.
"My son has been an instrumental support for James since the beginning," van Riemsdyk said. And not just for James, but for his two younger sons as well -- all are fanatical hockey players.
"My son always had them playing hockey," van Riemsdyk said. Frans would throw pucks at James and his brothers in the driveway when they were kids, and the boys would have about two seconds to shoot it, van Riemsdyk said.
The two younger brothers, Trevor and Brendan, are following in James' footsteps. Trevor plays hockey at the University of New Hampshire. Brendan is still in high school but already has been offered a college hockey scholarship.
"We always say how fortunate we are that the grandchildren are doing so well," van Riemsdyk said.
For a while, he wasn't even aware of his eldest grandson's celebrity status. It wasn't until he went to one of his professional games and saw young boys crowding around for autographs that van Riemsdyk realized how well-known James had become.
"That gives you a proud feeling in this crazy world," he said.
Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.