Throughout his hockey career, R.J. Umberger has been called many things.
On the road, the hulking winger with a penchant for playing a rough and tumble brand of hockey has been showered with catcalls and taunts from opposing fans.
In his adopted hometown of Columbus, the Blue Jackets alternate captain is often referred to in much more favorable terms.
And most recently, the 30-year-old father of two added the title of college graduate to his resume after earning his bachelor’s degree in marketing from The Ohio State University.
But nothing could have taken him aback like being called “old man” by the members of the current OSU team.
“It hits me kind of hard,” Umberger admitted.
Of course, it’s all in jest as Umberger gets the utmost respect from the players and coaches in his role as a volunteer coach for the Buckeyes during the NHL lockout.
While some NHL players opted to go overseas, Umberger chose to stay close to home while skating at the same campus facilities where he played college hockey.
“It’s definitely inspiring watching him go through what we’re going through,” junior defenseman Curtis Gedig said.
“It’s cool to have him out there talking to the guys and seeing his input on everything. It’s a different perspective playing college hockey and the NHL.”
Third-year coach Mark Osiecki approached Umberger about helping out once it became clear the NHL season would not start in early October because of a labor dispute. Umberger quickly accepted the chance to advise a team that routinely dresses a dozen freshmen or sophomores.
“He knows what you have to do to be successful on and off the ice in college,”
“He’s a living, walking model of what it’s like to be a high-end athlete here, to be an All-American,” Osiecki said. “Our players can see how he carries himself, how he prepares for practice, how he recovers after practice. He can talk about all those things.”
Umberger not only skates with the team, he is not afraid to give input where needed.
“First and foremost I want to be involved on the ice with them,” he said. “They can watch the things I do out there – the way I work out there, how I do drills and how I compete. If I see something on the power play or anything else, I’ll pull a guy aside and talk to him.”
Umberger has everyone’s attention because of his pedigree.
“He knows what you have to do to be successful on and off the ice in college,” sophomore forward Nick Oddo said.
A Pittsburgh native who now lives year round in Columbus, Umberger came to the budding Buckeyes program from the National Team Development Program, and continued his relationship with USA Hockey by playing in the IIHF World Junior Championships in 2001 and ’02.
From the outset Umberger made quite a splash in Columbus, being named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Rookie of the Year in 2001, and finishing his junior season as a second team All-American and Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist. He finished his Buckeye career with 58 goals and 129 points in 112 career games.
“It’s a big boost to the morale to have him around,” junior forward Alex Lippincott said. “He shows where you can go from Ohio State onward. It’s everybody’s dream to play in the NHL.”
Umberger knows players are faced with difficult choices on their path to the pros, but he’s never regretted his decision to pursue the collegiate route.
“College hockey is just as good a route to produce players to the NHL,” he said. “You mature in college, you get older, you train a lot. When you go into the NHL it seems like you’re prepared.”
Umberger was drafted 16th overall, the highest pick ever for an OSU player, by Vancouver in 2001, but never played for the Canucks. After leaving Ohio State before his senior year he sat out the 2003-04 season, unable to reach an agreement with Vancouver.
He was traded to the New York Rangers in March 2004 but signed with Philadelphia as a free agent three months later. After a season in the American Hockey League, he debuted with the Flyers on Oct. 30, 2005.
He was dealt to Columbus prior to the 2008-09 season and has become a fixture in the lineup as well as an alternate captain.
And while he has enjoyed a solid NHL career, Umberger knows there is life after hockey. And like it or not, the lockout has provided him with a head start on a possible post-playing career.
“I wanted to finish the degree as a goal I set for myself,” Umberger said. “I also want to have that option [with the degree] to be able to come and coach someday, and if it’s college hockey, come back and be involved with this program.”
Umberger is not traveling to away games and spends his time away from the rink staying in shape just in case the NHL season resumes.
“It’s still almost like summer training – five days in the gym and doing cardio outside of [practice],” he said.
Although he’s not around the team as much as the other coaches, his influence on the players is still evident.
“There’s nothing better than a guy who’s been in the same situation as us and has done everything correct,” Gedig said. “He took care of school and he’s playing in the NHL.”