Editor’s Note: Throughout the 2014-15 NHL season, USA Hockey Magazine will periodically highlight American-born players. In our most recent discussion we talk with Philadelphia Flyers forward R.J. Umberger.
A former first round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2001, R.J. Umberger is currently a forward with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Pittsburgh native spent the first three seasons of his career (2005-08) with the Flyers before lacing up the skates with the Columbus Blue Jackets for six seasons. The three-year standout at The Ohio State University tallied 58 goals and 71 assists in 112 games during his college hockey career.
When did you first start playing organized hockey in Pennsylvania? How were you introduced to the sport?
I played my first game when I was seven years old. I was introduced by watching the Pittsburgh Penguins on TV and wanted to try playing the sport.
Was there a youth hockey coach or two who had a big impact on you and helped instill a love of the game?
Jim Lilja was the coach who had the biggest impact on me as a kid. He coached me for four years of AAA travel hockey for the Pittsburgh Hornets.
Did you play any other sports growing up? If so, how did they help you become the player you are today?
I played baseball and football also. They helped me develop my eye-hand coordination and speed. By playing other sports I was able to work on all athletic skills.
When did you finally realize you wanted to commit to hockey full time? What was it about hockey that appealed to you?
When I was 16 I got invited to play at the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. I loved the speed of the game.
Which one or two players did you look up to in the NHL when you were a young kid? Anyone in particular you tried to model your game after? What was it about their game that you liked so much?
I idolized Mario Lemieux growing up because he dominated the game and he won 2 Stanley Cups while I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh. I didn’t try to model my game around anyone in particular; I just always tried to be the best player I could be.
What made attending The Ohio State University a more attractive option versus the major junior route? What do you remember most from those years playing college hockey?
As long as I can remember I knew I always wanted to play college hockey and earning a degree was always something I wanted to achieve. I remember all the fun times and friendships I made with my teammates during my three years of college hockey.
During the most recent NHL lockout, you returned to the OSU campus and helped coach the Buckeyes. What was that experience like, and did viewing the game from that perspective help you in any way as a player?
It was a lot of fun to be a part of the OSU Hockey program in a close way again. I enjoyed seeing the game from a different perspective but learned how hard it is to coach and not be able to physically go out on the ice and make a difference in the game.
How much have small area games been incorporated into your practices at both the collegiate and professional level? What types of skills have you taken away from those situations?
Small area 2 on 2’s and 3 on 3’s are pretty common at both levels. They help you develop your puck handling skills and ability to make plays in tight areas.
What is the coolest perk about playing in the NHL?
Traveling to all the different cities and eating at nice restaurants.
You played for the Blue Jackets for six seasons in Columbus. What was it like playing in a smaller, non-traditional hockey market versus Philadelphia, where you’ve been for the other five years of your career? How did you see the team’s following change over that time?
I enjoyed playing in Columbus a lot especially since I am an Ohio State graduate. The fans in Columbus are passionate and very loyal to their team. It was extremely evident in the first round of the playoffs last year vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins. The city was crazy and the arena was one of the loudest I have ever heard.
At some point, there will be a life after hockey for every professional — any thoughts as to what you’d like to do 10-15 years down the road? Coach? Broadcast booth? Business?
Coaching is something I would be interested in doing.