Umberger, college players long for NHL's return
OCT 17, 2012 4:29p ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The questions come every day for R.J. Umberger.
The theme remains the same: When will the NHL be back?
Umberger, a top-six forward for the Columbus Blue Jackets, doesn't know. It seems that every day when he arrives at Ohio State, where he serves as a volunteer coach to Mark Osiecki, one of the players again asks him.
When will the NHL be back?
"They ask questions every day," Umberger said after the Buckeyes' Wednesday workout. "The first thing today, somebody asked, `Is it going to get done?'"
While the NHL lockout continues with the owners and players staring each other down over a new agreement, Umberger faces questions without any answer. Yes, the NHL showed some movement by offering a proposal on Tuesday, but no, the players' union hasn't accepted it and is currently working on a counterproposal. Talks will resume Thursday in Toronto.
Even though college kids like those at Ohio State, along with the players toiling in juniors and the minor leagues, stand to gain a few more fans and a little more attention if the NHL remains shut down, almost all of them want a quick and complete resolution to the labor strife.
"We want the see the game grow at every level," Osiecki said. "We want nothing more than the NHL and the Blue Jackets to have great success because that only guarantees more interest in the sport locally and around the world.
"We want the entire sport to have success."
Buckeyes junior forward Alex Szczechura fell in love with hockey in Brantford, Ontario, where the game is more than just a pastime but borders on an obsession. The lockout has touched his family. His brother, Paul, has spent part of the last three seasons in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres.
Now Paul, his wife and his dog have moved into an apartment in Latvia so he can play for Dinamo Riga of the Kontinental Hockey League.
"He obviously wants to play over here," Alex said softly. "But when it's going how it is, you have to kind of find someplace else to play. He's done that."
So Alex and Paul talk on the phone every week or two, trying to bridge the 4,500 miles that separate them.
Umberger spends his days on conditioning, helping the Ohio State players, and on the phone. He tries to keep up on what's going on with the negotiations -- very little had taken place until the recent NHL offer -- and tries to just be ready if and when the lockout finally ends.
"It is difficult. I've done this a couple of times, now so I've been through it," he said with a chuckle, referring to the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. "It's hard living day by day and not knowing what's going on and trying to prepare. We train all summer to peak at a certain time and be ready for camp and now we don't know when we're going to be back.
"It is hard to deal with it."
Umberger, who has 143 goals and 171 assists in his 551 career NHL games with the Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers, tries to give tips to the Buckeyes on how to set up in front of the net and how to ask for the puck when they're open. They have gained from having him around.
"It's the way he handles himself," said Max McCormick, a sophomore forward for Ohio State who was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. "Today he was out skating after practice, trying to get in shape before he goes to his workout. The details of the game that he knows very well he can point out to you."
Osiecki has no doubt that his players have benefited greatly from having spent time around Umberger.
"They watch him and see how hard he works and how he handles things," he said. "Most of these guys have the dream of someday being an NHL player. It makes a big impression on them to see what kind of a guy R.J. is, how dedicated he is and how he prepares."
Alex Szczechura remembers the last lockout. He was 13 and his big brother was a budding star at Western Michigan when the NHL closed shop.
"The NHL is huge. It's everything in Canada. It's like football is in America," he said. "I hated it that (the lockout) happened. Hockey in Canada is basically all we watch on TV. I used to always watch it. And there was nothing to do. You could throw on a (Canadian Football League) game here and there, but after that, nothing."
Szczechura doesn't think the fans understand, know or even care what the two sides want. They just want the NHL to return.
So does Umberger. He's growing restless. It's the time of year when the games begin, but he feels left out, isolated.
From his brief time working with the Ohio State players, he thinks he might want to coach or work in some other capacity (scouting? player personnel?) when his playing days are over.
For now, he tries to make sure he's ready when the phone call comes that says the NHL is back in business. He hopes to continue working with the Ohio State team.
There is one way, however, that he's disappointed the Buckeyes.
"A lot of them play NHL `13," Umberger said of the video game. "Some of them said I wasn't scoring enough goals for them."
He laughed long and hard. Then he shook his head and trudged off for another workout for a season that remains stuck in limbo.
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