In Pittsburgh, it’s hard not to be touched in some way by the legend of Mario Lemieux, who brought back-to-back Stanley Cup championships to the Steel City and inspired a generation of hockey players in his wake.
One such player was R.J. Umberger, a Pittsburgh native who made his first visit to an ice rink after watching Lemieux and the Penguins on television.
“I was 6 years old and my parents took me to a local ice rink to try public skating,” Umberger recalled. “I liked it, and from the first moment I just wanted to try playing hockey.”
Following his Penguins, Umberger skated around Pittsburgh until half way through his high school career when he joined USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Umberger joined the NTDP in 1998 and spent the next two years honing his skills competing against top-flight talent both at home and abroad.
“It was great for me; it helped me develop as a young kid, both on and off the ice, maturity-wise,” Umberger said. “It opened up all the doors that led to my future career, and I had had all the possibilities because of that program.”
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One of those possibilities was an education at The Ohio State University. In his freshman season Umberger tallied 14 goals and 37 points in 32 games and was named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Rookie of the Year. He also continued to skate for Team USA in the IIHF World Under-18 and World Junior Championships.
Umberger’s skill and experience caught the eye of then Vancouver Canucks General Manager Brian Burke, who chose him in the first round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
Umberger continued as a Buckeye for two more seasons, finishing with 26 goals and 27 assists in 43 games during the 2002-03 season, and five points in the 2002 IIHF World Junior Championship. However, when it came time to take his place with the Canucks the path to the NHL was littered with roadblocks.
Umberger was unable to reach a contract agreement with the Canucks and was forced to sit out the 2003-04 season to obtain free agent status. Rather than get rusty during his time off, Umberger returned to where it all began.
“I went back and skated with [the NTDP] for half a year, just practice to stay on the ice and stay fresh in case something got worked out,” said Umberger who spent some of the time training with his cousin, Scott. “They allowed me to come back and stay with them so it was fun for me.”
In March 2004 Umberger was traded to the New York Rangers and signed on with the Philadelphia Flyers as a free agent a few months later. Unfortunately, he never got to touch the ice as the NHL lockout canceled the 2004-05 season. Instead he skated for the Philadelphia Phantoms of the American Hockey League.
A few games into the 2005-06 season Umberger was called up to play with the Flyers. For Umberger and his family of life-long Penguins fans, playing for Philadelphia tested NHL loyalties.
“It was definitely strange for all my friends and family; they’d choose sides,” Umberger said. “My family would obviously choose my side, but friends would always say they hope I score and that the Penguins win.”
Umberger spent three seasons with the Flyers, tallying 49 goals and 67 assists before being traded to the Blue Jackets in 2008. That fall Umberger made his return to the city of Columbus. Now in his second season with the team, Umberger feels at home.
“Because I went to Ohio State, it’s so much fun for me. I love the city of Columbus,” Umberger said. “I have numerous friends and teammates that still live there.”
Though content to play and raise his daughter Brienna in Columbus, Umberger can’t help but think what it would be like to play for his hometown team.
“If someday before I retire I get to play a year [in Pittsburgh] or something, it would be a lot of fun,” Umberger said. “Right now I’m enjoying my time here.”