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Stars' Ken Hitchcock on veteran R.J. Umberger: 'He's not done'

Following his release from a professional tryout with Dallas, the 35-year-old has high hopes for what's next

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

And so, a moment to acknowledge the brief passing of veteran forward R.J. Umberger through the Dallas Stars' orbit.

Players like Umberger show up at National Hockey League camps every fall -- no contracts, no guarantees, often looking for one last shot at a place in the show.

It was no different for Umberger, 35, who had taken all last season off after needing a break both mentally and physically from a hard-grinding career that had spanned 779 regular season games, none of which involved taking the easy way.

But if you think that players like Umberger, who was released from his professional tryout on Wednesday, don't leave an impression you're wrong. And if you think this will be the end for Umberger, well, let's not be so hasty.

"Sometimes you know when a guy's done," head coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday. "And he's not done."

"He looks like a guy who could have an impact in the National Hockey League," Hitchcock added.

Already headed back to Columbus and his family, including three children ages 4, 6 and 8, Umberger was thankful for the opportunity with a Stars team that didn't have to put out the welcome mat regardless of how it turned out.

"I came knowing that the situation with the roster was tight they had a lot of one-ways and I came with the expectation of leaving it all on the table and doing the best that I could," Umberger said Wednesday.

It is an illustration of the respect that the two men have for each other, a respect forged when Umberger played for Hitchcock in both Philadelphia and Columbus that this was where Umberger chose to try and breathe life into his career.

We spoke to Umberger, the 16th-overall pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2001, in the lead-up to camp about rekindling his love for the game last season helping to coach a group of 14-year-olds in Columbus. And the discussion he had with his wife about needing to find out if there was anything left for him.

"I just talked to my wife and I said, 'Look, I don't think this ended the way it should have ended,'" he said. "In 2-3 years from now, there's no going back -- it's over. But right now, if I don't have one more crack at it, then I will never know."

Umberger reached out to Hitchcock to congratulate him on his return to the bench in Dallas this summer, and then the two talked about whether there might be a place for him on a tryout basis.

 

[RELATED: Stars assign Brian Flynn and Brent Regner to Texas; R.J. Umberger released from tryout]

 

In some ways, the recovery from hip and back injuries that had hobbled him at the end in Philadelphia in 2014 through 2016, and the break from the mental challenges of not being the player he expected himself to be, allowed him a kind of freedom here in Dallas that was liberating.

"I think that's the best part about this is my mindset's a lot different than it has in years past," Umberger said.

"Here, really I have nothing to lose," Umberger added. "I'm here. I see the ending. I know what it's like to not play so I know what the worst case scenario is for me. I've got nothing to lose. I just want to be part of a group again a team. Play in any situation that really I can help out and I think that' a different mindset than I've ever had in my career."

That it didn't work in Dallas for the former Ohio State standout isn't a function of his performance.

He played with quickness and physicality.

In his last preseason game on Monday, Umberger had his best outing dating back to scrimmages in Cedar Park. Hitchcock estimated he was in on five scoring chances in that game.

But with a handful of top end youngsters fighting for work, and with the Stars a salary-cap team, adding another salary simply wasn't in the cards.

"He got better and better as the camp went along," Hitchcock said. "He had a major impact in the last game and it's based on his quickness."

And if this is the end, then so be it. Umberger left nothing on the table and can depart knowing he had more than a casual impact in his brief stay with the Stars.

"The big thing with him is the young guys loved him," Hitchcock said. "Even though they were competing against him, he was helping them. That's the thing they loved the most."

As for what's next, Umberger answered the big question for himself about whether he believes he can still play in the NHL. Now, the question is whether he's answered that question for another team somewhere in the league.

"Hopefully things sort themselves out in the next few days," he said. "I'm anxious to find out. I'll continue to stay in shape and be ready if something comes up."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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