Umberger happy to see hometown host this year's NHL Entry Draft
Plum native R.J. Umberger will be watching the upcoming National Hockey League Entry Draft with keen interest - as all NHL players do - to see how his Columbus Blue Jackets organization builds for its future.
He also will be looking on with pride as his hometown rolls out the red carpet for the NHL on June 22 and 23.
The lives of numerous players will be changed forever on the floor of Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center.
"Pittsburgh's been a great hockey hotbed for a while now," Umberger, 30, said.
"The support the Penguins get for every home game is pretty tremendous. You see it all over Facebook and Twitter. Friends back home in Pittsburgh are constantly excited for games. Come playoff time, you know the (Consol Energy Center) is always going to be packed. Having the draft there is just another reason the NHL knows that Pittsburgh is a great city for hockey."
The 1997 NHL Draft also was held in Pittsburgh.
Umberger said he knows what a team like the Penguins can do to build energy, especially among the youngest of athletes starting to get involved with the sport.
"Local hockey continues to grow with so many travel teams," he said.
"There are a couple workout facilities, and people really take it seriously. Knowing that kids in the area can eventually make major college teams and continue with their careers at the pro level is great to see.
"Back when Ryan (Malone) and myself were going through it (in the mid to late 90s), no one else had done it. It was new, and there were people telling us it couldn't be done. Now, the kids have something to strive for and goals to reach."
Umberger rose through the ranks quickly after leaving home to pursue his hockey dreams after his sophomore year at Plum High School in 1998.
He said he understands what future NHL stars will be going through at the draft a little more than a week from now.
Umberger was the 16th overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, selected by the Vancouver Canucks.
After a couple of years spent getting settled into a good situation, he made his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers early in the 2005-06 season.
Six years later, he has become a fixture for the Blue Jackets, and he serves as one of the team's alternate captains.
Umberger turned 30 on May 3, and he reflected on all that professional hockey has brought to him the past decade.
"I'm proud of everything I've accomplished," he said. "It's been an incredible ride and a lot of fun. Hopefully, I can look forward to 10 more years of hockey. I'd like to play as long as I can. I try to keep myself in the best shape possible. In my heart, I'm still an 18-year-old kid. I'm very lucky to be in this position and do what I love every day."
The 2011-12 season as a whole wasn't what Umberger and his Blue Jackets teammates had hoped for, but a 5-1 record to close out the season, Umberger said, was great going into the offseason.
Two wins in that six-game stretch came against Detroit and St. Louis, and the Blues finished with the NHL's third best regular-season record.
"The whole team played well at the end," Umberger said. "It was fun to start winning games and beating teams that were playing some important games right before the playoffs.
"We have a lot of young and talented players. In the NHL nowadays, you can turn around your season quickly, and in one year, you can be a totally different team."
Umberger scored 20 goals and added 20 assists for the Blue Jackets in 2011-12. It was his fifth season with at least 20 goals and his fourth in a row. He scored a career-best 26 goals in the 2008-09 season.
One of his best games of the season came against powerful St. Louis on March 31. In that road contest, he scored two goals, including the game winner. One of the goals came on the power play as the Blue Jackets upended the Blues, 5-2.
Umberger scored twice against Florida in a 4-1 Columbus victory the night before, and his hat trick against Carolina on March 23 - the third three-goal game of his NHL carer - propelled the Blue Jackets to a 5-1 win over the Hurricanes.
In each of his first three seasons with Columbus, Umberger played all 82 games. He missed five games this season, and they all came in a five-game stretch in January because of a concussion.
"Pretty much my whole career, I hadn't had too many injuries," he said.
"To miss five games this past season was tough. I wanted to play through it, but in the end, the smart thing was to take time and let it heal."
Umberger said he doesn't get back to Pittsburgh in general, and Plum specifically, as much as he used to. Training, skating and raising a family - which includes daughters ages 3 and 1 - keeps him pretty much close to home in Columbus.
But he said he definitely cherishes the times he can get home. It's a home that, he said, he is forever grateful for as the launching pad for his dream career.
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