Like any good Washington Capitals fan, Jeff Halpern can wax
nostalgic on the team's past. Halpern, 24, talks excitedly of
the improbable overtime goal that defenseman Rod Langway scored
to beat the New York Rangers in a 1990 playoff game. "His only
goal of the entire season!" Halpern says. He somberly recalls
Washington's quadruple-overtime playoff losses--to the New York
Islanders in '87 and to the Pittsburgh Penguins in '96--and he
brightens in recounting the breakaway goal that Caps icon Dale
Hunter scored to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 of a
first-round series in '88.
Yet to appreciate the depth of Halpern's unconditional love, you
need to ask him about the nasty blow that Hunter delivered to
Islanders center Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 postseason. Turgeon
was celebrating a goal, gliding with his arms up, when Hunter
slammed into him from behind. Hockey cognoscenti regard that
assault as among the most egregious in NHL history. "C'mon, it
wasn't so bad," says Halpern. "He was just finishing his check."
Today, Halpern is Washington's highly effective second-year
center, and there's no place he'd rather be. Halpern grew up just
outside the District, and each time he scores a goal at the MCI
Center, the Capitals flash a local map on the arena screen to
show fans where he grew up, in Potomac, Md. Halpern is also the
first Princeton graduate to play a full season in the NHL, but
that's another part of this story.
Halpern, 5'11" and 198 pounds, has a consistent, well-rounded
game, and his 18 goals and +21 rating last season made him a
Calder Trophy candidate. That followed a youth during which he
measured himself against a 6'3" Langway growth poster on his
bedroom wall. Halpern attended his first Capitals game at age
two; he was hit in the head by a puck off the stick of Caps
forward Paul Mulvey while watching a shootaround at four; and he
went to the Soviet Union with the Capitals as part of a youth
hockey program at 13. He signed with Washington 19 months ago,
but, he says, "I feel like I've been part of this organization
for 24 years."
Halpern began playing organized hockey in suburban D.C. at four.
At nine, when he was still barely up to Langway's belly button on
the poster, he joined a club team called the Little Capitals. The
Little Caps often traveled to New York or Philadelphia, and
Jeff's father, Mel, an attorney, or mother, Gloria, an
accountant, traveled with him. Mel and Gloria were transplanted
New Yorkers, but as hockey fans they bled Capital
red-white-and-blue. "We loved the Caps because we got to know
them as a family," Mel says. "I started skating when Jeff did."
Mel served as an assistant coach for many of Jeff's teams, but he
didn't go along when the kids accompanied the Capitals to Moscow
as part of a goodwill tour in 1989. Halpern recalls his Soviet
Union counterparts' shabby playing gear and the gift-wrap ribbon
they used as laces in their skates. "Jeff got right in and
befriended the Russian kids," says Washington president Dick
Patrick. "He was handing out chewing gum and stuff." Halpern also
remembers returning to the Moscow hotel and seeing Capitals idols
such as Scott Stevens and Dino Ciccarelli lounging in the lobby,
a sight as memorable as any he'd seen.
Though he stood only 5'2", Halpern at 15 had outgrown the local
competition--at least in talent. To improve his game he enrolled
as a sophomore at St. Paul's, a prep school in Concord, N.H.,
known for its hockey team. St. Paul's played less than .500
hockey over the next three years, and Jeff didn't get the
big-time college offers he'd hoped for. He decided to play a year
of junior hockey for the Stratford Cullitons in Ontario. There,
as his body filled out, Halpern says, "I put some swagger into my
Stratford went 76-8-3, and Halpern scored a team-best 41 points
in 21 playoff games. Now NCAA programs, largely from Ivy League
schools, were recruiting him. "Getting Jeff was the most
important thing in turning this program around," says Don Cahoon,
the Princeton coach at the time who moved to UMass last April.
As a junior, Halpern led the Tigers to their first ECAC
championship and topped the league with 53 points. In the NCAA
tournament semis he scored in a 2-1 loss to eventual champion
Michigan. That summer the Capitals invited him to a weeklong
rookie camp. Capitals coach Ron Wilson recalls that Halpern, an
undrafted free agent, was "easily the best player there. It was
as if an NHL player had come back to skate at rookie camp."
Halpern returned to Princeton for the 1998-99 season and earned a
degree in economics. He scored 44 points in 33 games, was a
finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and attracted a passel of NHL
scouts. Halpern knew where he wanted to go. Ten days after
Princeton's season ended in March, he signed a two-year deal with
the Caps that will pay him $1.2 million.
When Halpern arrived at camp in September 1999, he still had to
win a roster spot. "He came in tenacious and strong on the puck,
and made it impossible to cut him," says general manager George
McPhee. "The guy never lets you down. I don't think he's played a
bad shift for us, let alone a bad game."
As a Capital, Halpern instantly became a beloved figure--100 kids
turned out when he conducted a clinic at a rink in Montgomery,
Md., where he had first played youth league hockey--and his role
on the ice grew steadily. By the playoffs he was getting as much
ice time as perennial All-Star center Adam Oates. Wilson called
him "our most valuable player."
Then there was Dale Hunter Night at the MCI Center last March 11.
The recently retired Hunter gave Halpern an autographed
lithograph that evening that bore a sign of how far Halpern had
come: Hunter had signed it, TO BOB. Halpern had earned that
affectionate nickname with his expressionless pregame stare that
resembles the mien of the rubber dummy named Bob that the
Capitals have in their training room.
He has also forged a reputation with his Gumpish tendencies. Last
month he got lost while jogging in Bowie, Md., near the Caps'
practice facility, and was rescued from the side of a highway by
assistant coach Tim Hunter. One night last winter, believing the
heating system in his home was broken, Halpern slept huddled in
blankets only to have a teammate come over and simply turn on the
heat with a flick of a wall switch. "At first he got ribbed for
being an egghead," says Wilson. "Now guys say, 'How did Bob ever
get into Princeton?' The real genius is to not let people know
how smart you are."
Halpern recalls Princeton fondly, but it will always pale next to
where he is now. Right after signing with Washington, Halpern
played for the Caps' minor league team in Portland, Maine. In one
game he took a cross-check to his jaw. The next day he returned
to Princeton for the Tigers' year-end banquet. "He'd been gone
three weeks, and he looked like he'd been in a war," says Cahoon.
"His face was a total mess, but when he walked in and saw me, he
broke into a huge grin. That kid couldn't have been happier."
"let alone a bad game."