Monday, March 12, 2012

Umberger: A Heart and Soul Player for the Blue Jackets

By Larry Wigge

No one would possibly accuse R.J. Umberger of not wanting to be a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Earlier this season, a lot of that was going around considering that free-agent Jeff Carter said just that: That he did not want to be in Columbus.

The question became commonplace since the Blue Jackets were struggling in the standings.

Umberger was not one of them.

"I know the potential here. I know what it can be like with a successful team," said Umberger, who used to attend Blue Jackets games while he was playing hockey at Ohio State University from 2000-03. "That's what excites me as much as anything. I love this city and I love living here. I want to see our team do well."

Said Columbus GM Scott Howson, "Nothing R.J. does should surprise us."

"He's the epitome of a guy who plays through anything," former teammate Jason Chimera explained. "He can have a foot the size of a basketball and as long as he can squeeze it into a skate he will play."

Big. Strong. Fast. High-energy. Versatile. Those descriptions are high praise for a kid beating the odds of playing hockey in Pittsburgh -- from the Plumb district, 14 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, where only R.J. Umberger became the first Pittsburgh-born and trained player to be a first-round pick in the NHL.

"A lot of people told me I wouldn't make it -- that no one from Pittsburgh would make it," R.J. said, when asked for obstacles that he faced en route to the NHL. "My dad always told me to listen to my dream and just keep working." 

According to Umberger, this marriage between Columbus and himself has actually been seven-plus years in the making.

That goes back to the summer after R.J.'s freshman year at Ohio State University in which he was picked in the first round, 16th overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Vancouver Canucks. Umberger was hoping he'd be picked by the Jackets.

"I'll always be a Buckeyes fan," Umberger said. "I really wanted the Blue Jackets to to draft me out of Ohio State, but it never happened.

"To get an opportunity like this at this point in my career is worth a seven-year wait."

The time in between included three seasons as a Buckeye, including his final year in Ohio State in which he had 26 goals and 27 assists in 43 games and was a second-team All-American.

But he didn't get what he and his agent felt was a contract worthy of a first-round pick from Vancouver. Frustrated, he sat and waited word on a new destination -- didn't play anywhere in the 2003-04 season.

His rights were then dealt from Vancouver to the New York Rangers at the March trade deadline of 2004 for veteran winger Martin Rucinsky. But there was still no significant contract offer to Umberger's satisfaction with the Rangers, either. Finally in June of that year, he was made a free agent, signed with the Flyers and played the entire 2004-05 season the the American Hockey League's Philadelphia Phantoms -- scoring 21 goals and 44 assists in the regular season and another three goals and seven assists in the playoffs in helping the Phantoms with the Calder Cup Trophy as champions of the AHL.

The hard work ethic came from his father Rick (the R.J. stands for Richard Jr.). He brought with him to Columbus from the Philadelphia Flyers when he was dealt to the Blue Jackets on draft day in June of 2008 for first- and third-round draft choices.

Umberger has put up great numbers -- 26, 23 and 25 goals in his first three season with the Blues Jackets. Though he has slumped to 11 goals and 17 assists in 64 games, he had not changed his game.

Recently, the Blue Jackets regained some form of consistency -- winning four straight. But then they ran up against rival St. Louis -- and the Blues won back-to-back home-and-home contests. Even in the losses, Umberger was one of the best players on the ice for the Jackets.

He has endeared himself to Blue Jackets with his consistent effort and durability. Not to mention he has been in the lineup every game -- 244 consecutive games coming into this season.

"R.J. is a north/south downhill player. He's made a living out of beating people to the outside the last couple of seasons. He'd just blow past them," St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, who also had Umberger in Philadelphia and Columbus. "He has a big body and he has a great motor and compete level. That, plus the fact that's he's a smart hockey player who has shown in the past that he can adjust to a lot of different situations."

Rick Umberger, a general contractor/general construction, and R.J.'s mom, Roseann, who works at an ink factory, were the typical hard-working parents that it takes to raise a son with the character and high-level intangibles that make R.J. so valuable. Rick had to take odd jobs to allow R.J. to play hockey -- he collected copper and repaired aluminum siding to pay for his son's first pair of skates when he was seven. He also sold beer and hot dogs at Steelers games to pay for the family's commute to see R.J. play as he made his way up the ladder.

"You clearly learn the values and work ethic that you see at home," said R.J., who ironically had his first paying job working construction for his dad. "I owe my parents everything."

Hockey was pure love for Umberger.

"I was a product of the Mario Lemieux era in Pittsburgh," he said. "What he was doing in the late '80s drew my interest to the sport.

"Then they won the Cup and -- bang -- I wanted to be a hockey player. It was a great time."

Pittsburgh had suddenly become a NHL producer.

"That was surreal for all of us -- my dad, my mom and myself," he added.

"A lot of people told me I wouldn't make it -- that no one from Pittsburgh would make it," R.J. said, when asked for obstacles that he faced en route to the NHL. "My dad always told me to listen to my dream and just keep working." 

Mr. Fix-it is a guy who could go from line to line and add energy and grit to make that line hard to play against.

That would describe R.J. Umberger, a never-say-die, high-energy with the chances of beating the odds of being a tall, skinny kid growing up in the Plum district to be the first-round pick from Pittsburgh in the NHL.

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