It’s not every day that a college hockey team gets the chance to have an NHL player coaching on the bench.
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“It’s almost like a perfect storm,” said Ohio State men’s hockey coach Mark Osiecki on the addition of Columbus Blue Jackets’ forward R.J. Umberger to his coaching staff today. “He’s an alum, he lives here and he plays for Columbus.”
Umberger, who is serving as a volunteer coach, was an All-American at Ohio State. He’s played in the NHL for the last seven years; the last four have been with the Blue Jackets. NHL players were locked out at midnight Sept. 15 over a labor dispute that primarily focuses on how to divide hockey related revenues totaling billions. That dispute is expected to last into November, possibly December. The first two weeks of regular season games have already been canceled through Oct. 24.
“With the NHL lockout in full force, I am looking forward to being more connected to the Ohio State hockey program once again,” Umberger told Ohio State. “I’m excited to spend time on the ice with the players keeping myself in shape and hopefully offering any advice and help I can to them.”
Having a character guy like Umberger around for his players to learn from is invaluable, said Osiecki.
“We’re in the process of defining leadership and creating a culture we would like our program to have,” said Osiecki, adding that Umberger has already attended practices and will do so as his situation allows. “We like his culture, his background and his leadership to be around our guys. His word and actions are going to speak loud and clear with our players.”
Umberger is expected to help prepare OSU players for their first home game Nov. 9 vs.
Alaska, pending the lockout. Osiecki said Umberger will continue to
coach as his schedule permits. Ohio State opens its regular season this weekend
against Minnesota-Duluth. Umberger will not be traveling with the team during the season, according to Osiecki, opting
to spend extra time with his family and coaching only when the team is
home for games and practices.
The players, said Osiecki, are thrilled to have Umberger in the rink, providing feedback to the coaches and offering guidance on an individual level when needed. But beyond just the day-to-day coaching, it’s the long-term sacrifice that Osiecki wants his players to glean from Umberger.
“I want them to see what sort of sacrifice it takes to be a high-level player,” said Osiecki. “That might just be to a high-level player in our program or an All-American; but if he 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.”
Osiecki said the players won’t be the only ones learning from Umberger.
“Most coaches are going to be humble enough to know that we haven’t learned it all,” said Osiecki, whose staff also includes associate head coach Steve Rohik and assistant coach Joe Exter. “We’re certainly going to learn. He’s playing at the highest level. Right, wrong or indifferent, we’re certainly going to learn.”
Osiecki said Umberger will be learning, too. After all, a guy can’t play hockey forever. And learning the ropes of coaching can only benefit Umberger down the road. In fact, before the lockout, Osiecki was already exploring ways to get Umberger and others into the OSU program as volunteer coaches.
“We were already talking with compliance about what can and can not be done about a volunteer coach,” said Osiecki.
“It’s certainly been great having him want to do this and be around; it certainly speaks to his character,” said Osiecki. And besides, Umberger’s passion for Ohio State is something the coaches like to see. “Certainly we like the fact that he’s gone through this program. He bleeds scarlet and grey,” Osiecki said.