October 30, 2009
R.J. Umberger(notes) had the best goal-scoring season of his career (26) in what was the most memorable season in Columbus Blue Jackets franchise history: Their 2008-09 maiden voyage to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was his first season with the Blue Jackets, though not his first season in Columbus; Umberger played hockey for The Ohio State University, making the Pittsburgh native as close to a homegrown product as the BJs have on their roster.
This season, Umberger has 2 goals and 4 assists in 11 games for Columbus, who hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night. Like his team (12 points in 11 games), Umberger's still finding his way this season; but the former Philadelphia Flyers' versatility at forward enables him to see time in plenty of different roles. He's played up with star winger Rick Nash(notes) recently; against Pittsburgh, he expected to skate with Derick Brassard(notes) and Jakub Voracek(notes).
"Anywhere in the top six forwards is a lot of fun," he said. "It's demanding. It's a huge responsibility to play on both ends. It's somewhere I always wanted me game to be -- to be a guy that's counted on in key situations."
We spoke with Umberger about Columbus's maturation as a team and a hockey city; the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry, the best sports city between Columbus, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; his thoughts on controversial hits on teammate Jason Chimera(notes) and by former teammate Mike Richards(notes); and a rather infamous Jersey Foul in his honor we published here on Puck Daddy this week. Plus the rest of the usual nonsense. Enjoy!
Q. So how much does life change in Columbus when you're coming off a playoff season?
UMBERGER: There's a bigger buzz in the city. The following is a lot bigger. Everyone was excited for the season to start, and opening night we had a big crowd. We've had a rough stretch in the last week or so, but I think there's a lot of excitement in the city because they've seen what can happen when we play well.
That rough stretch comes as the conference has gotten a little topsy-turvy. Did you guys come into the season assuming certain teams would be in the mix while others wouldn't? Is there extra pressure on you with the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings grabbing points left and right?
Every year is a new start for teams, but you do have your teams you think are the favorites and the teams you think you really have to contend with. There's always a surprise team like St. Louis last year, coming back from being last and out of it. I'm sure we surprised a lot of teams last year. And here it is again with Colorado off to a good start, and they were a team you'd think wasn't going to make the playoffs.
It happened to us in Philly. One year we were terrible, the next year we went to the conference finals. It happens.
We spoke to Rick Nash before the season about the playoff appearance against the Detroit Red Wings being a bit briefer than you guys wanted. How hungry does that make you to get back after a series like that?
Once you get a taste of it, you want to get back there. For us, we played Detroit, who went to the finals. It was a good experience for us to play the best, and to be part of a playoff atmosphere. A lot of the guys on the team were new to it.
Is there ever a situation where Nash does not pick up the check you guys go out? He's the got the contract now; he should be funding your lives away from the rink.
[Laughs] No, you know, he's pretty good. Most guys in hockey are pretty good with splitting the checks or playing the credit card game or whatever. He brought the team dinner already. He's off the hook.
As an Ohio State guy, does that connection change the dynamic between you and the fans in Columbus in way that's different than, say, the dynamic between the fans and a European player?
Yeah. Some people will know me because of that -- the guy around town that was a State hockey player. People remember that. You'll hear "O-H!"/"I-O!" somewhere, and you know people are talking to you. It's an easy thing for them to remember you by.
It's special to me. I was a big Ohio State fan. I love the university, I'm still part of it and it's special to play here.
[Laughs] Ah, not those players personally. For the school, yeah.
Mike was a good friend of mine [with the Philadelphia Flyers], and we always had our wagers when the football teams played each other.
Will you, as a Buckeye, admit that Michigan has the best-looking hockey helmet in the NCAA?
Maybe the most recognizable. I don't know about "best looking."
We talk about rivalries with Ohio State and Michigan, but as a guy coming from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference, it must have been jarring to go from the nightly geographic blood feuds for the Flyers to the much different vibe in the West.
The whole west thing ... I'm still trying to get used to it, even though I played the full year here. The travel is different, and I don't know if I'll ever get used to it with us being so far away [from other conference teams]. All the teams are different. Being in Philly, there were just so many more personal rivalries for the team. It just felt like there were big, huge battle every night and you knew what you were getting from every team.
It's funny: I still get really excited when we play Eastern Conference teams.
Do you think that's one of the reasons it's been a slow maturation process for Columbus as an NHL city: The lack of those intense rivalry games?
I think the time zone changes make it harder for our fans to stay up and watch those 10 o'clock games. National televised hockey isn't focused on the West. People don't know much about the Western teams. I talked to a local radio station in Pittsburgh [this week]; here we are three hours from them, and they didn't know anything about our season because we're in the Western Conference.
You've got some star power in the East with Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin. That's the face of the NHL right now.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, your place of birth: Number of Primanti Bros. sandwiches you could put down in one sitting?
You know, probably one. I like Primanti's, but I was never a huge fan.
I might get abuse for this, but I like the Philly cheese steak better.
I don't know if I should admit that.
This question might also be a bit of a hot water situation for you: Best sports town, between Pittsburgh, Philly and Columbus?
Ah, it's tough. I'm naturally going to say Pittsburgh because they're more loyal to their players. Philly ... the teams right now are really good teams, and it's such a competitive sports town. I think they're tough on their players; they judge them too fast. In Pittsburgh, [sports] mean way more.
Speaking of Philly fandom, on our blog we do a series called Jersey Fouls that featured a mash-up between a Cole Hamels Phillies jersey and an R.J. Umberger Flyers jersey, creating a new shirt that read "Hamberger" on the back.
Do you find that to be a tribute, sir?
That's fun. When I was in Philly, there was a guy who would run around the rink that was called "The Hamberger." It's good stuff. I guess it was supposed to be in honor of me.
Let's shift gears and talk about the story of last weekend in the NHL: Controversial hits. You watched Jason Chimera flipped by Rob Scuderi(notes), who was fined for it. What was your take on that hit?
I don't know if it was a necessary hit. You can easily eliminate the guy; you don't need to take his knees out. I think it needed a suspension, and that's just me personally. I just think the danger in how he went up in the air and landed, he's lucky his neck didn't get hurt.
I've seen good hip checks, and they're part of the game. But a hip check is when you hit'em with your hip; you don't go after a guy's knees.
I've been a part of some bad hits in my career. (Ed. Note: No kidding.) It's scary. What we're seeing, nothing's happening with any retribution.
On that same line of thinking, the Mike Richards hit on David Booth(notes) was something we considered a hockey play. Do you see it the same way, or should there be an extra bit of punishment for guys who make contact with the head in any fashion?
I thought it was a clean hit by definition and a hockey play. It happened so fast. I know Mike personally, and he's not the type of guy to do stuff like that. I just think that there's such a fine line today with how fast the game is and how big the players are; how can we eliminate the hits to the head?
Even though it's clean, it's still a hit to the head and it can end that guy's career. You watch a play [and wonder] if a big hit there is really necessary; he didn't have the puck anymore. If Richards just picks him up and stays with him, he's eliminated from the play. There's really no reason to drill the guy.
It's a fine line. It's a clean hit, but with the game evolving so much, it's still dangerous now.
Alright, nearing the finish line: So what's on your iPod these days?
Got a lot of stuff. A lot of country music on there. The new Jay-Z rap's on there. A lot of old school rap with Tupac and Eminem. I got everything. I don't eliminate any music.
Best movie you've seen lately?
"The Hangover." It's a no-brainer.
The one fast food item you can't do without?
Probably just the Chipotle burritos here in Columbus.
You adult beverage of choice, sir?
And finally, what do you love best about hockey?
The chance to play a game with that much speed. You have to read and react. It's something new every game.