Courtesy of MCT
Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger should be 10 games into his eighth NHL season as of Tuesday night. But instead of playing games at Nationwide Arena, Umberger can be found at the Schottenstein Center.
With the NHL in the midst of its second lockout in nine seasons, Umberger has temporarily traded in his blue jersey for scarlet and gray as a volunteer coach for Ohio State men’s hockey team.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to come here and help out, and I’m glad they want me to be here,” Umberger said.
Umberger, who played at OSU from 2001 to 2003, said it’s fun helping out his alma mater, but he would rather be playing.
The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association expired in September, and the two sides have yet to reach an agreement. Until they do, the jobs of Umberger and every other NHL player are on hiatus. All scheduled games in November have already been canceled.
The NHL and NHLPA resumed talks Saturday after more than two weeks apart, but Umberger said it was a “disappointing moment” when the previous round of negotiations ended Oct. 18 without a deal.
“The NHL gave their offer and we came back at them and they kind of walked out in 10 minutes,” Umberger said. “That was a little bit of a reality moment … this could go a long time. This is something that might not end shortly.”
Umberger said working with the Buckeyes has helped him stay focused during the lockout.
“I’ve been on the ice so I’m staying in shape … (and) just being around the game and staying fresh and staying prepared mentally,” Umberger said. “This (lockout) is such an unknown thing, it could be tomorrow and they tell us we got to be at the rink, so it’s a challenge to stay fresh every day.”
While many NHL players have continued to play professional hockey overseas during the lockout, Umberger said he decided to stay close to his family.
“That first decision was staying in Columbus, and then it was … what can I do while I’m here in Columbus?” Umberger said. “(OSU coach Mark) Osiecki presented me with this offer, and it was something I couldn’t pass up.”
Osiecki said having an NHL player leading by example at practices is “worth its weight in gold.”
“His practice habits, how he takes care of his body after practice, what he puts into his body nutritionally, he can speak to that,” Osiecki said. “If you don’t approach the game that way … you don’t have a chance to get to the NHL level.”
Junior forward Travis Statchuk said he has been motivated by practicing with Umberger.
“It’s a huge honor for us having him on the ice,” Statchuk said. “For a guy like that who’s obviously a veteran in the NHL to come back and give back to where he played college, he didn’t have to do that.”
Umberger, who completed his bachelor’s degree in marketing from OSU in 2011, said “one small reason” for finishing his degree was so he can pursue coaching following his playing career.
As a minor league player at the time, Umberger said he was not affected by the league’s previous lockout in 2004-2005 but said the current lockout is unnecessary and disappointing.
“I think both sides just need to realize they need to … meet in the middle,” Umberger said. “Both sides got to be willing to give concessions. Both sides got to realize that there’s more damage that could be done by letting this (lockout) progress any longer.”