BUFFALO – Even 900 games later, pulling on an NHL jersey never gets old for Jeff Halpern.
Thirteen years after breaking into the league as an undrafted rookie out of Princeton University, Halpern is getting set to suit up for a milestone game – the 900th of his NHL career – on Thursday night against the Sabres.
“It happened pretty quick. A couple of lockouts and a couple of injuries and maybe I could’ve gotten there a little quicker,” joked Halpern, who has played for six different teams in his NHL career. “The best part is to just be able to be in those games and in that competition with the teammates I’ve been lucky enough to play with in that time.
“I thought Game 1 was something special and every game since has been a treat and a tribute to the players I’ve played with and the trainers and staff and my family,” he added, having played alongside the likes of Adam Oates, Olaf Kolzig, Peter Bondra and Jaromir Jagr early on in his career. “Every game is something you try to bring those people into and hopefully they can get some enjoyment out of it as well.”
Brought in to bolster the Canadiens’ penalty kill and faceoff efficiency, Halpern returned for his second stint in Montreal exactly as advertised. In his eight games with the Habs since being claimed off waivers on March 23, the team has allowed just one power play goal against in 20 opportunities.
“You always try to play to impress your teammates and the coaches and the fraternity of the league,” shared the 36-year-old center. “From my first day of training camp in Washington, it’s been a constant challenge and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing. You try to enjoy it even more when you get older.”
Part of his enthusiasm heading into each game has come from feeding off the energy of some of the young stars he’s played with along the way. From Steven Stamkos in Tampa to Alex Ovechkin in Washington and now Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher in Montreal, he’s had no shortage of budding superstars to share trade secrets with throughout his career.
“It’s always fun to be around exciting young players and there are some great ones here. They’re not just young guys who are excited; they’re great players,” offered Halpern of the Canadiens’ rookies. “I think the biggest difference I’ve seen from when I was a rookie to now is just the skill level of the young guys coming in. The stick skills and the speed and the size continues to grow. It’s amazing to think where it will be 15 years from now.
“J.T. Miller was 19 when I was playing with him in New York this year so I was twice his age and there are a couple of guys here that I’m twice their ages,” added Halpern with a laugh. “J.T.’s mom was 40, I think, so that’s when you start kind of shaking your head.”
Just seven years old when Halpern made his NHL debut against the Panthers on October 2, 1999, Gallagher has had no problem relating to the elder statesman in the Habs dressing room – although with Halpern’s stall located directly beside that of 34-year-old captain Brian Gionta’s, Gallagher admits he's had a problem picking up a few pre-1990 pop culture references along the way.
“They give me a hard time about that – I don’t get a lot of the things they talk about. We joke about it, but they were around for some things that I’ve never even heard about,” chuckled Gallagher, who is fifth in NHL rookie scoring with 21 points in 35 games. “It’s pretty cool listening to him talk about some of the guys he’s played with and some stories along the way. It’s incredible that he’s still playing and he’s been able to play in the National Hockey League for that long.
“He’s good, not only for what he brings and what he’s able to teach me, but he’s also good at sharing stories with other guys about things he’s learned along the way,” added the Edmonton, AB native. “That’s something I appreciate. He’s a very approachable guy and he’s very willing to come and give me a pointer here and there and share tips with me. He’s very easy to get along with and he’s a guy you want to have in your locker room.”
About to knock one impressive NHL milestone off his list, Halpern hasn’t ruled out the possibility of sticking around long enough to earn his silver stick by hitting the 1,000-game benchmark down the road.
“Growing up, you always try to play to get to the next level, so for me it was trying to get to play in college. From college, it was to be able to play beyond that,” he mentioned. “I think that’s how I’ve always approached every season and every day: to try and do well enough to continue playing. The game is fun and if you get the chance to keep playing, that’s the goal. I want to play as long as I can.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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