With his head bouncing around like a bobble head doll and his eyes glazed over, Philadelphia Flyers
center R.J. Umberger
was somewhere between the ice and who knows where.
Until now, that's the vision of Umberger's career, a direct result of Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell's crushing, Scott Stevens-like body check during Game 1 of the 2006 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
"I've seen it enough," Umberger told NHL.com of the hit that is readily available on YouTube. "I'm OK with it now."
Now being the key.
It took Umberger all of last season to finally get over the hit, not physically, but mentally. Despite a concussion, he still returned for Game 3 of that series against the Sabres, but he spent virtually all of last season skating scared.
Now 54 games into the 2007-08 season, it's quite clear that's not the case anymore. Umberger, who had 38 points and was a plus-9 as a rookie before Campbell's check, has been a revelation for the resurgent Flyers this season. He's both a strong checker and an offensive threat now after hesitating for most of last season.
"I'm over it, but it definitely affected me last year," Umberger said of the hit. "I didn't like to talk about it. I tried to ignore it, but it had lingering effects. Not health-wise, but mental-wise. I wasn't the same person on the ice. I second-guessed myself and didn't play with the same. … I don't know if it's craziness or drive because I second-guessed getting hit like that again."
Umberger has already exceeded his point total last season -- 39 in 54 games this season as opposed to 28 in 81 games a year ago. He's also a plus-7 as opposed to his leaky minus-32 for the 22-48-12 Flyers of 2006-07.
While Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren feels there's still more offense hidden in Umberger's 6-foot-2, 200-pound body, coach John Stevens has high praise for the youngster who has overcome.
"He's kind of our unsung hero to this point," Stevens said. "He fills big minutes in a lot of different situations. He plays power play, penalty killing, and 4-on-4. He's done a great job checking other teams' top lines and he's really created a lot of offense. You can call it secondary offense, but we think he's having a terrific year."
"He's very good with the puck now down low in the offensive zone, to juke and jive to shed the defender," Holmgren added. "But, after that hit, initially he had a tough time with it."
Ironically, that hit also became the seminal moment of Campbell's career. Ever since unleashing on Umberger from the blindside near the right wing boards that night, Campbell has been a dominant two-way defenseman. He recently played in his second straight All-Star Game, and he will undoubtedly command millions this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
"It was a changing moment in my career," Campbell told NHL.com. "My name got out there a lot more, but it was a play that anybody would make. He got a pass that I'm sure he wasn't too happy getting. We obviously call it a suicide pass, and that's a tough play for him trying to get the puck out of the zone. I wouldn't think he's that mad at me. Maybe he's mad at his linemate that gave the pass."
Umberger, who doesn't blame anyone for the hit, credits his turnaround to a ridiculously rigorous off-season training regimen. He built a gym in his home and had a personal trainer basically live with him over the summer.
"He had some nasal surgery late in the summer (before the 2006-07 season) to hopefully alleviate some of the problems he was having and I don't think he came into camp in the shape that he was used to being in. This year was the exact opposite," Stevens said. "He's one guy that just exhausted every option at his disposal to get better. He built a gym in his basement. He had a trainer live with him. He did this awareness training, which is more mental training than anything else, but it increases his close vision and his distant vision. He did puck handling drills off the ice.
"He told me in the exit meetings at the end of last year that not coming to camp in tip-top shape would never happen again. So here is a guy that just did everything he could possibly do, and he's being rewarded through his play."
"I'm over it, but it definitely affected me last year," Umberger said of the hit. "I didn't like to talk about it. I tried to ignore it, but it had lingering effects. Not health-wise, but mental-wise. I wasn't the same person on the ice." - Flyers center R.J. Umberger
While last season was brutal, at least Umberger was playing hockey.
He couldn't say that four years ago. Umberger was selected 16th overall by Vancouver in the 2001 Entry Draft, but he never could reach an agreement on a contract. After three seasons at Ohio State, Umberger sat out the entire 2003-04 season.
The Canucks traded his rights to the Rangers on March 9, 2004 and he wound up practicing with them for the rest of the season. But Umberger never suited up for a game, in the NHL or the AHL. He became an unrestricted free agent following the season, and chose the Flyers on June 16, 2004 despite significant interest from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He played 80 games during the lockout season with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL.
"It was a unique situation, almost like my college days all over again where I was going on visits," said Umberger, a native of Pittsburgh. "That just doesn't happen. You don't get unrestricted at that age (22). I definitely took advantage of it.
"I'm thrilled that I chose Philadelphia," he continued. "Twenty-five is still young, and I do think I'm going in the right direction."
Only now he's got his head up.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.