25th Anniversary Special – Top 25 Rebels in franchise history; No. 6 Jim Vandermeer
A face-to-face, heart-to-heart meeting in the spring of 2000 in a hotel restaurant in Cranbrook is a special memory for Brent Sutter.
It was on that day that Sutter sat down with Jim Vandermeer and discussed what it would take for the Rebels defenceman to take his game to another level and beyond.
“I’ll never forget the meeting I had with Jimmy near the end of that season,” said Sutter, who at that time was nearing the conclusion of his first-ever season as Rebels owners/GM/ bench boss while Vandermeer was closing out his third year with the team.
“I asked Jimmy how bad he wanted to be a pro and he said he wanted to be a pro and play in the National Hockey League.”
Sutter, who played 18 seasons in The Show, had some hefty words of advice for the Caroline native, stressing to Vandermeer that he had to “get over that hump of being a casual type of player.”
Vandermeer always played with an edge, as his 258 penalty minutes during the ’98-99 season and 221 minutes the following campaign indicated. But Sutter saw more in the big rearguard.
“To me, he seemed like he had all the attributes that he could be a pro,” said Sutter. “It was just getting him to understand that every practice was important, that every shift of every game was important. If he did that then he would grow as a player because he’d have the puck more and be able to develop into a better player.
“It all worked out. That was the first one-on-one talk I had with him and he took it to heart. From that point on he just took off and he earned everything he got. There wasn’t a day that Jimmy didn’t come to the rink and work and compete.”
The following season, Vandermeer was a dominant player as a 20-year-old, displaying his all-around abilities by scoring 21 goals and collecting 65 points during the regular season and recording another 16 points — including three goals — as the Rebels roared through the playoffs en route to a WHL championship.
As the team captain, he also led the Rebels to a Memorial Cup title in May of 2001. It was a coming-of-age season for Vandermeer, who showed that he was much more than just a feared fighter.
“He was a warrior, the toughest guy in our league at the time,” said Sutter. “His game just developed. He was the leader of that group that won the Memorial Cup, Jimmy was the glue to that. He was a heck of a player for us.”
Vandermeer parlayed his dominant 2000-01 season into a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers and he bounced between the NHL club and their AHL affiliate — the Philadelphia Phantoms — the next two years before being dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Sutter had nothing but glowing reviews of Vandermeer when the Flyers started talking contract with the defenceman in November of 2000.
“We had conversations with Jimmy’s agent and the Flyers and we got a deal done for Jimmy,” said the Rebels boss. “He signed a deal in November and played the rest of the year knowing he was going to be a pro the following season. It was pretty cool.”
Clearly, the Flyers realized that Vandermeer was developing into a more complete player as an overage junior defenceman. Sutter certainly saw the skill that emerged in Vandermeer’s game as the 2000-01 season wore on.
Not surprisingly, Sutter also praised Vandermeer’s parents for instilling character in their son. Bob and Maureen Vandermeer raised six hockey-playing sons over the years.
“Jimmy could shoot, he could skate . . . he had offensive abilities,” said Sutter. “And obviously the Vandermeer family speaks for itself. They’re great people, salt of the earth . . . character individuals.
“Having the opportunity to coach Jimmy and (younger brother) Teddy was a privilege and an honour. They’re caring people who were raised with that toughness and care very deeply about success and winning. They would do whatever it took.
“Jimmy bought into everything we talked about and put that (Memorial Cup championship) team on his shoulders.”
According to Vandermeer, the Memorial Cup winning crew was more than just a team. It was a family.
“When I look at any team I played on over the years, there has always been a couple of guys you don’t get along with or at times disagree with,” he told Troy Gillard of 106.7 The Drive in an interview during the Memorial Cup tournament at the Centrium last May.
“But on that team, if a guy had family issues or another problem, every one of his teammates wanted to help him out.”
Vandermeer said the 2001 Memorial Cup tournament was almost a surreal event.
“It was such a special year,” he told Gillard. “We were ranked No. 1 going in and the expectations on us were so high. It was kind of a blur. It was over a week long but it seemed like two or three days.
“We were just caught up in the moment. We were focused and we’d go to the rink to practise and play. It was just kind of a blur.”
He will always remember, however, the thrill of being presented with the Memorial Cup. It ranks right up there among his greatest moments in the sport.
“Obviously, getting the chance to play in the NHL was great, but that was like an actual moment of winning a championship,” he said. “It’s what you dream of and what every guy plays for.
“To win the Western League and then the Memorial Cup, that’s hard to accomplish. It was pretty special to be able to do that.”
Vandermeer played 482 games in the NHL with the Flyers, Blackhawks, Calgary Flames, Phoenix Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks, amassing 25 goals and 107 points and racking up 681 penalty minutes before heading overseas in 2013.
He suited up with a Swiss team for two seasons and has been with the Belfast Giants of the English Elite League the past two years.
“It’s been cool to learn some history, travel the world a bit and still get to play some hockey,” said Vandermeer. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play hockey for a long time.”
Vandermeer, now 37, has contributed seven goals and 24 points in 49 games with the Giants this season.