Plum native Umberger inching closer to making return for Blue Jackets
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Hockey fans in Columbus consider Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger one of their own.
He played three seasons in the city at Ohio State (2001-03) before embarking on a professional career that took him to the Philadelphia Flyers before the Blue Jackets acquired him in a trade in June 2008.
Umberger cemented his relationship with the team's followers when he scored the first postseason goal in franchise history on April 16, 2009, against the Detroit Red Wings and he continues to live in Columbus in the offseason with his family.
But Umberger's heart originally belonged to the Penguins as boy growing up in Plum. He led the Mustangs to a state high school hockey title and has fond memories as a 9-year-old of watching on TV with his grandfather when the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup in 1991, then doing it again the following season.
“I watched till the end of the games and then I'd be going crazy as a kid,” he said. “It was the coolest thing in the world to me.”
So imagine how odd it was for Umberger to be sitting in the Consol Energy Center press box Wednesday because of an injury while his current team lost 4-3 to his former favorite club in Game 1 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It's kind of weird,” he said. “I'm watching the game and I hear the Pens chant and I go, ‘Wait a minute, I don't like that chant.'
“You grew up with it. It gets etched in your head, but you're sitting there like, ‘It's annoying.' It's a strange feeling. You grow to hate the team you grew up loving.”
It's a situation he hopes does not repeat Saturday in Game 2 on the Penguins' home ice. Umberger had a vigorous workout Thursday during the Blue Jackets' optional practice in Columbus and said he is close to returning from an upper-body injury that has kept him out of the lineup the past four games.
“We're going to see how practice goes Friday for R.J.,” Columbus coach Todd Richards said. “There's a possibility he can play in Game 2.”
Richards would love to have Umberger back in the lineup for his grit and veteran leadership, but there was a point not long ago that the coach had a different opinion of him.
Umberger was a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career March 20 at the Montreal Canadiens and sat three of the next six games.
Richards said at the time of the benching that he wanted Umberger to elevate his game, even though he was among the Blue Jackets' top scorers.
Umberger finished the regular season on an eight-game goal-less streak and has one in the past 12 games. With 18 goals, he barely missed scoring at least 20 goals in a season for the sixth time and fifth for Columbus.
That is behind him now as he awaits medical clearance.
“If it was up to me, I would have played last night,” he said Thursday. “Anybody who knows me knows how bad I want to be out there.”
Especially for a playoff game in Pittsburgh.
“I did it once with Philly (in 2008),” he said. “I lost in the semifinals there. You're that close to the Stanley Cup Final. It was hard.
“You want to go to your hometown. I've been getting a lot of calls and texts from people who are rooting us on. People who are diehard Penguins fans are saying they're actually rooting for us. It's good to see the people support you.”
Craig Merz is a freelance writer.
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