FAMILIAR FACE - Former Red Deer Rebel Jim Vandermeer celebrates scoring against Coventry during an Elite Ice Hockey League game at the SSE Arena

Catching up with local hockey veteran Jim Vandermeer

Former Red Deer Rebel has spent the last year playing for the Belfast Giants

Jim Vandermeer has worn the colours of a lot of different teams over the course of his hockey career, from the red, black and white of the Red Deer Rebels — where he spent all four years of his WHL career — to a number of different NHL jerseys and the red, white and blue of EHC Kloten of the Swiss Elite League, he’s seen it all.

Over the course of a hockey journey that has spanned almost 20 years including junior and pro, the 37-year-old product of Caroline has played for no less than 12 teams in five different leagues and four countries.

But the former Rebels captain said he’s never really given that statistic much thought.

“I think for most of it I was just living in the moment and not really thinking about anything, just going,” said Vandermeer during a phone interview from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The big, 6’1” stay-at-home defenseman has spent the last year playing for the Belfast Giants of the British Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL).

“It’s been a good experience,” said Vandermeer of playing for Giants, who he joined in February of last year after being bought out of his contract with Kloten HC in July.

After spending most of the 2015 hockey season working out and skating in Vancouver, which he now calls home, Vandermeer was contacted by Giants player-coach Derrick Walser and family friend David Rutherford, who asked if he was interested in coming to play in the UK.

“At the time I didn’t really have anything else going on and I didn’t feel like I wanted to be retired from hockey yet,” Vandermeer recalled, noting that playing in the 10-team British league has been a very unique experience.

For a start, the EIHL season doesn’t follow the traditional regular season and playoffs format that North American hockey fans are used to.

Instead, the league uses a format that is more consistent with soccer, where teams compete for three different trophies over the course of a season, the most prestigious of which is the League Cup, which is awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season.

The top eight teams in the league then qualify for playoffs, which use a two-leg aggregate qualifying round before a single-knockout format tournament and compete for a playoffs trophy. There is also the Challenge Cup, which is a stand alone tournament.

“It’s almost like it’s playoffs all year long. We won 10 in a row and we only gained about four points on Cardiff who’s ahead of us. Every league I’ve ever played in before you obviously want to play well enough and get into playoffs and then anything can happen. Here, as soon as the season’s over that’s the big trophy,” Vandermeer said, adding that it’s also kind of strange to play in a country where hockey is a niche sport.

“It’s definitely not as well known. We grew up with it. It’s always around. Here, it’s almost like you’ve got to know somebody that leads you towards it. The people that like and enjoy it, they’re pretty passionate. They love it.”

On the ice, though, it’s still hockey. While the game is constantly changing and constantly evolving, the European game is pretty much the same no matter where you go.

Almost all European leagues use a larger, Olympic-sized ice surface, which means offensive players have more room to move and everyone has to be a fairly good skater to compete. But beyond that, “Hockey’s, hockey,” Vandermeer said.

It’s also given Vandermeer a chance to play hockey at a professional level far beyond his days in the NHL came to a close while also travelling and seeing the world.

“You know, I wasn’t an overly skilled guy. I was kind of a muck-and-grind kind of guy, so I knew it wasn’t going to last forever. My wife and I, we always talked that after the NHL we wanted to travel a bit and see the world,” said Vandermeer, adding that he’s hoping to play in Belfast for at least another year while he attends Ulster University to get either a Master’s in Coaching or take the Sports Management course.

He also noted that while he’s not closing the door on a return to North America to play hockey, it’s not a very likely prospect.

“Who knows? Anything can happen. If a team came calling and said, ‘Hey, we want you to come play,’ then you obviously weigh your options and go from there.”

Despite all of his journeys, trials and tribulations playing the sport he loves, Vandermeer said he’s never lost his passion for the game. “I love the game of hockey. It’s treated me and my family very well. Now I’m just trying to figure out the next step along the way.”

zcormier@reddeerexpress.com