It’s a long way from Morweena, Manitoba, to the bright lights of Toronto, but for Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer staying grounded amidst the intense pressure of the NHL is a matter of faith.
“To me, my faith is everything,” says Reimer, who was brought up in the Mennonite religion on a tiny prairie farm town tucked in between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba.
“They love their Leafs in Toronto, but you have to stay focussed,” he says.
For that he relies on his faith to keep him humble and give him strength.
“He helps me through the times when I feel I may not be strong enough,” Reimer says. Whenever he finds himself in a tough situation, Reimer draws on that higher power to see him through.
Reimer says it’s important to do everything he can with the ability God has given him.
“It’s a gift,” he says. “And he can take it away from me any second.”
To that end, Reimer has spent the last three off-seasons training at the Fitlife Centre for Health and Performance in Maple Ridge with trainer Adam Francilia and fellow NHLers Andrew Ladd and Brandon Yip, after marrying Maple Ridge’s April Dalman.
“I like it here,” Reimer says. “It’s laid back compared to Toronto.”
Reimer comes by his appreciation for a slower pace of life honestly. His hometown of Morweena has a population of just 150 people.
“But the main reason I keep coming back to Maple Ridge is Fitlife,” he says. “The work you do in the off season is huge, it helps you perform at a high level for longer.”
Not surprisingly, since Reimer stepped up his off-season training regimen, his star has risen, and his play has improved dramatically.
Training partner Victor Bartley, who recently inked an NHL deal with the Nashville Predators, says Reimer is one of the fittest goalies he’s ever seen.
Reimer posted a modest record of 41-46-14 after three seasons with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. Reimer was drafter in the fourth round by the Maple Leafs in 2006, and in 2008 was shipped to the Reading Royals of the East Coast Hockey League after a promising NHL prospects camp.
“I thought I was good enough to play in the AHL, so it was hard to have to go down to the ECHL,” he says.
Again, he says his faith helped him keep focussed
“Sometimes you’re so close, but you feel so far away,” he says. “But I knew He had plan, I just needed to be patient.”
It turned out the stint in the ECHL was the right move for him, he admits now. Instead seeing limited icetime as a back-up in the AHL, Reimer was able to further develop as a starter, posting a 16-7-3 record.
Next training camp, he stuck with the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leaf’s American Hockey League affiliate.
In parts of three seasons with the Marlies, Reimer posted a 24-15-3 record, and in January of this year his big break came when Maple Leaf coach Ron Wilson opted to start Reimer in net over Jonas Gustavsson against the Ottawa Senators.
“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” he says. “Before the game, all I could think was, what if things go bad, and it’s not your fault.”
But the second the puck dropped, any mental distractions he may have had evaporated.
Reimer credits his conditioning with enabling him to take advantage of the opportunity.
“You might only get those opportunities once in a lifetime, so you have to be ready,” he says. “If your body is broken down by January, you’re going to miss out.
Reimer got the win in convincing fashion, as the Leafs won 5-1.
“We were in Ottawa, so it was practically a home game,” he says. “It was pretty amazing.”
Reimer managed a 20-10-5 record with the Leafs over the remainder of the season, providing one of the few bright spots for Maple Leafs fans as the team failed to make the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
This season, Reimer is determined to take the team to the postseason.
“My goal is to have a good camp and get the starting position,” he says. “I want to do the most I can with the gift He has given me.”