Plum's Umberger joins coaching ranks
If you happened to catch a glimpse of an Ohio State hockey practice sometime over the past three months, you may have noticed a particularly polished forward looking noticeably out of place among a bevy of younger Buckeyes adorned in white, red and silver jerseys.
That 30-year-old forward isn't a college player. In fact, he's not even a college student anymore. He's Plum native R.J. Umberger, who typically during this time of year is playing left wing for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But this isn't a typical year. With a labor dispute that has kept players locked out since Sept. 15, Umberger, like every other NHL player, is temporarily jobless.
That's why the one-time Buckeyes standout contacted Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki.
“I approached Coach Osiecki to see if I could skate with the team to stay in shape,” Umberger said. “I didn't know if it would be short-term or not.”
Osiecki not only accepted the offer, but shortly thereafter asked Umberger to assume a larger role with the team.
“Pretty much after the first week he asked if I wanted to step up and be a volunteer coach,” Umberger said.
Umberger, who had never coached before, accepted.
“At first, it was honestly a way for me to just be on the ice around (the players). For them to be around me, watch how I practice, ask me questions,” he said.
With a résumé like Umberger's, it's easy to see why Osiecki thought putting him into a more in-depth role could be beneficial.
A three-year letterman, Umberger scored 129 career points at Ohio State. In 2001, he was selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, 16th overall, by the Vancouver Canucks — the highest spot in which an Ohio State player has been drafted.
As a junior in 2003, Umberger scored 53 points in 43 games and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. It would turn out to be his final season with the Buckeyes before turning professional.
In 551 career NHL games split between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Blue Jackets, Umberger has scored 143 goals and 314 total points.
“I found that a lot of (what I provide) comes out of my experience playing (in the NHL). A lot of it takes weight with the players,” he said. “The hardest thing I've had to deal with is not having any control over the situation, not being able to go out and help the team execute something when they need it.”
Even with the understanding that he typically would be utilized as an example for the players, Umberger gradually has assumed a more hands-on role with the team as the season has progressed.
During most games he can be found in the press box taking notes, analyzing the game and providing suggestions for tactical adjustments during period breaks.
On the weekend of Dec. 7, during a home-and-home series with Robert Morris, Umberger coached at ice-level for the first time.
Over the weekend, he did it again. With Osiecki in Russia serving as an assistant coach at the World Junior Championships for the United States, Umberger acted as assistant during a pair of Buckeyes games against Miami (Ohio) and Penn State at the Three Rivers Classic college hockey tournament at Consol Energy Center.
While he has enjoyed his foray into coaching, Umberger doesn't sound ready to trade in his skates for a pair of loafers.
“After this, yeah, it's definitely something I might want to do when I'm done,” he said. “But at this point, I'm still thinking about playing hockey for a long time.”
Stephen Catanese is a freelance writer.
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