Thirteen years ago, when it came to Pittsburgh natives playing in the NHL, there were basically two names: Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger.
There are now twelve players hailing from the Pittsburgh area among the hockey players that have returned to action as NHL training camps opened late last week. But the two that started the current trend are still at it.
Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson, Calgary Flames defenseman Matt Bartkowski (Mt. Lebanon), Chicago Blackhawks left-winger Brandon Saad (Pine-Richland), Dallas Stars defenseman Stephen Johns, Florida Panthers right-winger Vincent Trocheck and Washington Capitals forward Riley Barber all reported to camp late last week as expected. They are under NHL contracts.
Arizona Coyotes goaltender Michael Houser, St. Louis Blues forward Ty Loney (Pine-Richland) and Capitals goaltender Parker Milner (Mt. Lebanon) all have AHL contracts that included an invite to camp.
For Malone, who is with the Minnesota Wild, and Umberger, who’s staking with the Stars, all they were promised was a locker and a jersey as part of their try-out arrangements.
That’s not unexpected. After all, the 35-year old Umberger took last season off after getting bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2016. Malone, 36, hasn’t skated regularly since 2014-15.
While they may be long shots for roster spots, Malone and Umberger each have another motivation for finding their way back to the rink this September.
For Malone, it started as a shot at the Olympics. While NHL players and players signed to NHL contracts will not be permitted to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics from Feb. 9 to Feb. 25., players signed to minor-league contracts will be eligible.
That’s what got Malone started down the comeback trail. He called up an old acquaintance in former Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher, who is now the GM of the Minnesota Wild.
“I ended up calling Chuck and really more talking about if I could help out (with the Iowa Wild) in anyway and get an opportunity to kind of get some games in,” Malone told the Pioneer Press.
Of course, now that he’s in NHL camp, he’s going to fight for a roster spot like everyone else. The same goes with Umberger.
“I’ve seen crazier things happen in these camps,” Umberger said to Sports Day. “If you prove you should be on the team, they’ll find room for you. It’s my job to go out and show them I still belong in this league.”
Like Malone, Umberger leaned on an old acquaintance to get his opportunity. In his case, it was Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock, who Umberger had worked under in Philadelphia and Columbus.
“Every time he has played for me, whether it’s fourth line or second line, he’s scored 20 goals,” Hitchcock said. “He goes to the net, he’s great on the power play, he’s a really heavy player. He’s fresh, he’s healthy, he doesn’t have the wear and tear that other guys have.”
If Umberger doesn’t make it back to the NHL, he may have a future in coaching. While taking the 2016-17 season off, he coached a U-14 team near Columbus. Being around the rink so much inspired him to get back into the game, but also gave him a taste of a potential future.
NHL preseason games got started with three games over the weekend, but there is a full slate Monday, including the first taste of action for local players. Malone’s Wild will visit Winnipeg, while the Capitals head to New Jersey and the Rangers host the New York Islanders. The Flames and Edmonton Oilers will play a pair of home-and-home split squad games.
Umberger and the Stars will get the preseason started Tuesday by hosting Ty Loney and the St. Louis Blues. Anaheim, Chicago, Florida will also begin play Tuesday. Arizona’s first game is Wednesday.