The four of them grew up in the same Central New Jersey town, attended the same middle school and high school, and played in the same youth sports leagues.

No matter what they were doing - hanging out at the Shore, playing soccer, talking about the Yankees - you rarely saw one without the other three.

Today, the four 20-year-olds are still inseparable - even though one of them, Flyers left winger James van Riemsdyk, happens to be a standout NHL rookie who has a schedule that's a little different.

Call them James and his Traveling Troupe.

The group includes juniors Pat Keenan and Paul Passariello, each of whom is an accounting and finance major at Villanova, and Joe Sarlo, who is a junior studying bioengineering at Lehigh.

When they were youngsters in Middletown, N.J., they learned of van Riemsdyk's off-the-charts intensity. Whether they were playing video games, backyard football or Wiffle ball, their soft-spoken friend was obsessed with winning.

"He had to be the most competitive kid on the planet," Passariello said.

Van Riemsdyk has six goals and 12 assists in 18 games and is scheduled to join the Flyers in today's 1 p.m. contest against Buffalo at the Wachovia Center.

Passariello recalled the day when a group of friends, playing on a field they affectionately called "Mile High" because it was elevated, was trying to throw a football into a tiny trash can that was 40 or 50 yards away.

Van Riemsdyk, 15 at the time and a freshman at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, N.J., was the only one who was getting close, and most of the others quickly gave up.

Close to 1 1/2 hours later, van Riemsdyk was still trying.

"His mom came to pick us up and give us a ride home," Passariello said, smiling at the memory, "and he wouldn't let us leave until he made it - and he finally did."

Van Riemsdyk, also known as "Reemer" to his friends, was a talented soccer and baseball player in his younger days, but hockey became his first love.

"We always knew he was really into hockey," Passariello said. "Our freshman year in high school, we'd all hang out and he couldn't because he'd be off to some part of the country or off to Canada to play hockey. We knew he was always playing, but we didn't know how good he was."

That is, until his first year at Christian Brothers Academy.

"He made our varsity team as a freshman - and we had a good team - and it was like a wake-up call to us that James was really good," Passariello said. "And since then, he's just kept on going. I'm just so proud of him. He's always been so focused and so determined, and that's what's taken him to this point in his life."

In 2005, van Riemsdyk became a local legend when he scored on a breakaway in overtime, roofing the puck into the net and giving the Christian Brothers Colts a 2-1 win over archrival Delbarton in the Non-Public state final at the reverberating Continental Arena.

After it ended, van Riemsdyk did a pull-up on the glass and leaned into the jubilant CBA rooting section so he could share the electric feeling with fans who proudly called themselves the "Colts Crazies."

"It was probably the greatest sporting event I've ever seen in my life," said Sarlo, the Lehigh student.

Sarlo, Keenan, and Passariello were there that night. They've been by van Riemsdyk's side ever since.

They stayed in touch with van Riemsdyk after he left CBA before his junior year and went to a Michigan school and became a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program.

They were at the NHL draft in Columbus, Ohio, in 2007, when van Riemsdyk was taken No. 2 overall. They were at some of his games at the University of New Hampshire, and they were in Ottawa to watch van Riemsdyk perform in the World Junior Championships last winter.

Because they attend Villanova and are close to the Wachovia Center, Passariello and Keenan plan to attend most of the Flyers' home games this season. Along with Sarlo, the trio went to van Riemsdyk's NHL debut in Raleigh, N.C., on Oct. 2. The group drove about eight hours - making a stop in Baltimore to pick up George Rodriguez, a CBA graduate who attends Loyola - to watch their friend's long-anticipated debut, against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It obviously makes it more special to have friends and family here for the ride," said van Riemsdyk, whose parents are frequently at his games. "It makes it that much more fun."

In the opener, Van Riemsdyk picked up an assist as the Flyers defeated Carolina, 2-0.

"It's an unbelievable experience to share with one of your best friends," said Keenan, who, along with Passariello, drove back to New Jersey the next day to be at the Flyers-Devils game in Newark. "We kind of get to ride his coattails a little."

"It's kind of surreal," Sarlo said. "Growing up, we knew he liked hockey, but no one knew he'd come this far. At every level, he's excelled, but I don't think any of us saw this coming."

Sarlo paused.

"The nice thing is that with all the success, he's still the same humble kid, still the same old James. He hasn't changed at all."

Sarlo said that van Riemsdyk, who comes from the same area as Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, always has had a reserved demeanor and a quiet sense of humor.

"He was never cocky and he's always been someone who is good to be around - someone you're proud to introduce to your parents as your friend," he said.

When van Riemsdyk scored his first NHL goal, against the Panthers in the third period of the Flyers' 5-1 win over Florida on Oct. 24, Passariello and Keenan erupted in the Wachovia Center suite in which they were sitting.

"I think the people around us thought we were nuts," Passariello said. "When he scored, it made it 5-1, but we were screaming and high-fiving like it was an overtime goal."

The trio has some more road trips planned. They will be in Madison Square Garden to watch the Flyers play the New York Rangers on Dec. 30, then head to Boston for the Winter Classic at Fenway Park on Jan. 1.

By then, van Riemsdyk could be in the thick of the rookie-of-the-year race. His 18 points were second most among NHL rookies going into last night's games.

"I'm unbelievably proud of him and all the work he's put in to get here," Keenan said.

Van Riemsdyk and his buddies are longtime video-game junkies. NHL 10 is one of their favorite games, and, despite being apart, they compete against each other online.

Sarlo recalled recently having the Flyers in a game in which he defeated van Riemsdyk.

"So I beat him with the team that had him on it," said Sarlo, laughing at the irony. "It was kind of cool."

Almost as cool as traveling to NHL rinks - with free tickets, no less - to watch their unassuming friend fulfill his boyhood dream.

Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181