R.J. Umberger has enjoyed the extra time he’s had with his wife and kids since NHL players were locked out at midnight Sept. 15.
“I’ve gotten to do extra things I wouldn’t have been able to,” said the Columbus Blue Jackets forward.
Ohio State announced Monday that the three-year letter winner for the Buckeyes will return to his alma mater to work as a volunteer coach for the men’s hockey team, keeping his legs moving and his mind on the game. It’s a move that helps Umberger stay ready if and when the NHL season starts.
Umberger played at Ohio State from 2001-03 and was a finalist for
the Hobey Baker Award his junior season. The unique opportunity to return to the scarlet and gray is helping him define his life post-NHL player even further.
“I think college would be really fun,” said the Pittsburgh native of which level of hockey he’d like to consider coaching someday. “Being around the young kids and impacting their lives.”
These are all good things, he said, but … “at the same time, it was already a long summer with the season ending early,” said Umberger, who has 143 goals and 171 assists in seven NHL seasons (551 games) in the with the Flyers and Blue Jackets. “I was anxious to get started. I put in a lot of hard work and was ready to go.”
The Blue Jackets were once again heading into a season with something to prove. After a disastrous 2011-12 campaign that was capped off with captain Rick Nash being traded to the New York Rangers in the offseason, Umberger and crew were ready to put the pieces back together under head coach Todd Richards.
“I did a lot of weight room; more than I normally do,” said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Umberger of his summer routine. “I skated on the ice twice a week trying to work on my individual skills; fine tuning.”
Umberger, who has played four seasons with Columbus and wears an “A” for the (a new captain has yet to be named), originally got in touch with OSU men’s hockey coach Mark Osiecki about skating.
“I contacted (Osiecki) about skating in practice to stay in shape,” said Umberger. “He suggested maybe I do the volunteer coach.”
Having Umberger in as a volunteer coach is a boon for the program, said Osiecki, adding that he hopes his players glean the type of commitment needed to play hockey at a high level.
“I want them to see what sort of sacrifice it takes,” said Osiecki, who is in his third year with the Buckeyes. “That might just be to a high-level player in our program or an All-American; but if (Umberger) can shed some light on the sacrifice it took for him to get where he is, that’s what I want them to see. How he’s taking care of his body, what he’s putting in his body and how he’s recovering after practices. If they can see the commitment level, our guys are going to benefit.”
Umberger is hoping to show the way, but it’s a weird spot for an NHL player to be in, for sure. A lockout, what with all the extra time, has a way of making a man antsy; he starts thinking about the season left behind, the season he wants to play and life after hockey. Umberger is no exception.
“I have mixed feelings,” said the 30-year-old. “Now that I’m getting a little bit older, within the next 5-10 years, it will come faster than I realize.
“I finished my degree (last year) because I wanted to have options after I’m done with my career,” said Umberger, who earned his bachelor’s in marketing last spring. “Obviously I want to be connected with sports; mainly hockey.”
And this OSU gig is a first step toward thinking about the possibility of coaching. Sharing some of his wisdom with younger minds is a role Umberger could easily step into. It’s what he’s looking forward to when he gets on the ice in his new role.
“Being around the guys and being able to help out in any way I can. Giving advice on the ice. Telling them how I went about preparing for games or how I do it now; just add any kind of experience I can,” said Umberger. “I remember being their age. In a way, I’m jealous; I wish I could be that young again.”
Well, minus those blonde highlights he sported sophomore year that gave him a two-tone look forever captured in a roster photo and for four years on his driver’s license.
“We were in a playoff race and trying to get home ice and somebody suggested we dye our hair blonde,” Umberger said with a laugh. “I don’t know; it didn’t look that great for a lot of us. It was a bonding moment. I would recommend maybe mustaches or a beard for these guys.”
He’d also recommend working harder. Umberger, considered one of the hardest working guys on the CBJ squad, said he looks back on his college days and wishes he would have done more.
“I look back and I didn’t realize then as much as I wish I would have. I think I could have accomplished more,” he said. “The way I play the game, I played with skill in college; I wish I would have played with the same work ethic defensively, and back checking — things that are demanded at the pro level.”
That dedication to the game, honing individual skills and creating a culture of hard work on such a young OSU team, is something Umberger hopes to impart on the squad of mostly underclassmen in a role he describes as more player advisor than coach.
“I think my relationship with them will be a player’s relationship; solely an advice thing,” said Umberger. “I don’t think they’ll be looking at me as a coach but more a player as somewhere they want to be someday.”
One thing’s for sure, while going back to Ohio State is a special thing for Umberger, it’s the NHL season he’s looking forward to.
“I’m just trying to get myself ready,” said Umberger.