Being a healthy scratch in the NHL is difficult to endure, particularly for a player such as Halpern who takes as much pride in his work ethic as in his abilities. Box scores list “reasons” for players’ absences from the lineup; “healthy” is the worst possible designation a player can see next to his name in those chronicles. Whether banishment or punishment or simply a matter of too many bodies and not enough uniforms, the “healthy scratch” is the NHL’s equivalent of the scarlet letter. Scratched players watch the game alone – or perhaps with his other injured and/or scratched mates – from the press box with grim countenance that borders on embarrassment. They are the ones who can be seen standing around awkwardly in the locker room after the game, the ones with the dry hair and crisp suits and shirts, their hands plunged in pockets while they talk in hushed tones with sympathetic teammates who still drip with sweat from the night’s toil.
Including the Columbus game, Halpern was a healthy scratch for three straight contests. He returned to the lineup in Los Angeles on Dec. 6 but the wheels had come off the Capitals’ careening cart by then and Cassidy was coaching out the string. The team returned to Washington from Colorado after a five-game road trip in the wee hours of Dec. 9. A day later, the team held a press conference to announce that assistant coach Glen Hanlon would take over the reins of the team from Cassidy.
“That was the low point of my career,” says Halpern. “For me it was embarrassing and frustrating at the same time. Looking back on it, how I handled the situation, it was the first time I had been scratched and I want it to be the last time. It was something I wasn’t happy with.”
Halpern didn’t know it then, but the coaching change would make a big difference in his game and his season.
“Glennie was hired right after that Colorado game,” remembers Halpern. “He sat me down and gave me a huge vote of confidence and said he was going to have a lot of patience trying to get my game back. I think from that moment on – I don’t know if I started playing better right then and there – I felt good. But I had hit such a low point that it took a long time to get back to where I wanted to be. Obviously it’s tough when you’re losing a lot, to be in those games where you can contribute at the end of the games or come up with the big play. It was a long process getting back to where I wanted to be.”
Even with Hanlon behind the bench, the Capitals endured many difficult nights. With the playoffs beyond reach, the team began looking toward the future, dealing older and in-demand players to contenders in exchange for prospects and draft picks. While Halpern’s own game flourished as he took on more responsibility and ice time, the burden of so many losses also weighed heavily upon him.
That night when he took his seat in the Columbus press box, Halpern sported some rather mediocre numbers. In the season’s first 23 games, he had managed just two goals, six points, 18 PIM and a minus-10 defensive rating while averaging 15:57 of ice time a night.
Those numbers were remarkably improved over the season’s final quarter. A depleted Washington team went 4-14-2 in the campaign’s final 20 games and was outscored by 65-36 in the process. Even so, Halpern was a star night in and night out. He totaled eight goals, 22 points, eight PIM and posted a plus-1 while skating 20:47 a night. Halpern picked up 11 of his 21 points on the power play down the stretch and made himself a fixture in the opposing crease while the Caps enjoyed a man advantage. What’s really remarkable is that he was a plus-1 during a span in which the team was outscored by nearly 30 goals, but Halpern shrugs it off.
“Any individual success when your team is going the way we were is empty,” he declares. “Probably at that time I was frustrated too, because I thought we had a real good team – or at least real good players – and we had the ability to do a lot of good things. I thought [Jaromir Jagr] was a great player but I think financially it was a deal that just had to be done.
Halpern’s frustrations boiled over late in February when he candidly admitted that he and the team “stunk” during a between periods television interview in Tampa. His honest assessment was refreshing in a time when so many athletes offer canned and bland responses to canned and bland questions in such situations.
“After we made [the Jagr] deal I really liked the team we had,” he says now. “It was a hard-working team and I thought Anson [Carter] fit into that mold of a hard-working team. I think that Tampa game came right after [Robert Lang] got traded. [Sergei Gonchar] was sitting out and [Michael Nylander] was almost out. As a player and as a fan and as someone who has put a lot of time into the season you hate to see guys like that leave. It will be a long time before you get a group of guys that are proven. There were a lot of reasons to be frustrated and that was just one of them.”
Halpern’s frustration is understandably more intense than that of his teammates because he has a far greater emotional investment in the Capitals. Born just after the conclusion of the Capitals’ second season, Halpern was born and raised in Maryland. His family held season tickets and he grew up watching the likes of Rod Langway, Dale Hunter and Peter Bondra ply their trades at the old Capital Centre in Landover. Halpern can recite favorite games and favorite moments of his youth and can tell you where he was and what he was doing when various landmark Capitals events occurred. He’s as much a fan as any current season ticket holder. When the Caps brought in three old favorites to help commemorate the team’s 30th season on opening night of the 2003-04 campaign, Halpern might have been as thrilled as any of the 15,791 in attendance.
“Those were three of my favorites right there, Dale Hunter, Rod Langway and Calle Johansson,” he said after that game. “Seeing those guys back here is pretty awesome. My favorite moments are watching Dale Hunter score the overtime goal [against Philly in the 1988 playoffs] there and when they went to the finals in ’98. Going to the old Cap Centre was how I grew up.
“Another huge highlight for me was just playing with Calle Johansson. We played on the same team but we also played on the ice a lot together in situations and matching up against other teams’ lines. To be able to that with him was awesome. He is such a great guy and such a warrior on the ice. That’s something I will always remember is that relationship.”
Halpern just completed his fifth season as a Capital and it has been remarkable to watch his development and evolution as a player and leader over that time. When he first walked into the locker room in training camp in the fall of 1999, he was a fresh-faced kid who had just finished college and he was a longshot to crack a roster made up of established veterans.
Because he was the first NHL player born and developed in the DC area who went on to play for the Capitals, Halpern was a good story and he garnered a lot of media attention that first season. This became the source of some good-natured ribbing from his grizzled teammates, some of whom referred to him as “Homegrown.”
But Halpern paid his dues. He absorbed the locker room chiding and soaked up the ins and outs of how to carry himself professionally both on and off the ice.
“Jeff’s a great player,” says former Capitals teammate Ken Klee, now reunited with Halpern on Team USA in the World Cup tournament. “He learned when he had to those first couple years. He took a lot, whether it was learning how to be a professional from guys like Adam Oates, myself, Kono and the different guys we had then. He learned how to go through the daily grind as well as how to improve your game every day and not just be satisfied with being a third- or fourth-line guy.”
Throughout most of their three-decade existence, the Capitals have been known as a lunch bucket group of players who work hard and are difficult to play against on a given night. That torch of pride, diligence and hard work was passed down to Halpern from the likes of Hunter, Kelly Miller, Mike Ridley, Steve Konowalchuk and others.
“There has been a huge changeover here,” says Halpern, talking of the complexion of the Capitals. “There are only two guys still here that I played with that first year. But that’s the nature of the game and we had a pretty old team at the time so you knew then there was going to be a big changeover. It’s fun both ways. It’s fun to have a lot of older guys who have been through a lot because you learn a lot from them, guys like Adam Oates and Steve Konowalchuk and Ulf Dahlen. Those are probably the three guys I’ve learned the most from. At the same time, being one of the older guys now is a lot different feeling because you’re a bigger part of the locker room and a bigger part of the team. I think that has been a lot of fun for me. There are positives both ways and either way, I can take a lot of enjoyment out of it.”
Halpern celebrated his 28th birthday last May by representing Team USA at the IIHF World Championships in Europe and helping his team to its first medal finish (bronze) at the annual tournament since 1996. Although he is still a young man by hockey standards and is still in the midst of his prime, he is beginning to display the leadership attributes that were passed down to him from the hands and minds of Oates, Konowalchuk, Dahlen, Klee, Kolzig and others who came before him and played alongside him. It would not be a surprise to see Halpern sporting the captain’s “C” at some point in the not-too-distant future.
“I thought the real defining moment came with six minutes left in the game against Pittsburgh, our last game of the season,” related Hanlon shortly after the season concluded. “One of our younger players had made a couple of mistakes and he came to the bench and Jeff Halpern
said to him, ‘We don’t do that here.’ He could have easily chosen not to say anything with six minutes left [in the last game of the season]. These are the types of players that – going forward – are going to make my summer enjoyable.”
Upon returning from the World Championship tournament, Halpern learned that he had been selected to play for Team USA at the prestigious World Cup tournament this summer.
“Coming back [from the World Championships] and finding out – for so many reasons – how great it was to make the World Cup team has given me something to work for this summer with everything hanging over my head,” says Halpern. “It is such an unbelievable tournament. I think it’s a better tournament than the Stanley Cup [playoffs] with the intensity and the players. I’ve been so excited looking forward to that that everything I’ve done this summer I’ve done with that in the back of my head. I’ve tried to relax as much as I can knowing that I’m gearing up for it.”
When the last World Cup tournament was played in 1996, Halpern was a 20-year-old kid who had just completed an unremarkable freshman season at Princeton University. He went undrafted and signed with the Capitals as a free agent after the conclusion of his senior year in 1998-99. A player of such stature could hardly believe that he might someday be participating in such a tournament.
“I dreamed about it,” he admits. “I remember the ’87 Canada Cup where every game was 6-5 with [Wayne] Gretzky setting up [Mario] Lemieux for the winner. I think the 96 [World Cup] was so unbelievable. I was in college and half our team was Canadian and half our team was American. We watched the last game together and it was probably one of my best memories in college, watching that game.
“If fans of hockey who aren’t familiar with the World Cup remember what the 2002 Olympics was like and how great that hockey was, I think that with the NHL rules and the intensity that it brings, this hockey is far beyond the best hockey that fans get a chance to see.”
To help himself get into game shape for the World Cup tournament, Halpern participated in Washington’s annual prospect development camp last month. Amid the gaggle of first round draft choices and high profile teenaged prospects was this self-made NHL regular, a guy who took the long way to the same place the young Washington prospects hope to reach – the National Hockey League.
Halpern liked what he saw at the prospects camp and holds out hope of the current crop of youthful Caps evolving into a team that can become an elite NHL outfit.
“It’s a good group of guys and I think they’re trying to mix that group with the guys they just drafted and grow that group together,” he says. “I’m pretty optimistic about how many talented young players there are and to see how that progresses over the years.”
If all goes according to plan, Halpern will school the likes of Brian Sutherby, Steve Eminger, Eric Fehr, Alexander Ovechkin, Boyd Gordon and others in what it means to be a Capital. He will also be dining at their and others’ expense annually when the Caps’ veterans are treated to dinner by the team’s rookies. It’s an annual rite of passage that promises to be far less expensive for the team’s current crop of kids than it was when Halpern was a freshman. Although he was the team’s lone rookie for much of the season, he happened into a little help when it came time to foot the bill for the 1999-2000 rookie dinner.
“It was me and Alexandre Volchkov,” remembers Halpern of the formerly ballyhooed Caps prospect who went bust. “He came up for about two days and split it with me. There are a lot of them [rookies] now. I remember at the time being so happy to be able to do that because it means you’re in the NHL now. Those types of things kind of include you in a fraternity and it’s something so special and something you’ve dreamed of for so long. You really don’t mind coughing up that money for that experience.”
Eight years ago, most would have bet on Volchkov as the guy who would be playing for his country in the World Cup games and Halpern as the guy who would be working a “real job.” Instead, Halpern is skating for Team USA and Volchkov – despite being more than a year younger than Halpern – has disappeared entirely from the hockey radar screen and stands as one of the NHL’s biggest Entry Draft busts of all time.
“No matter what your skill level is as an athlete, if you have strong character you have a chance to do something as an athlete,” says Tim Army, the former Caps assistant coach and current Team USA assistant and Portland Pirates head coach. “Character to me is the number one ingredient in a successful hockey player and I think his character is unquestioned, his work ethic is unquestioned. He is also a kid who has some innate abilities as a hockey player. He skates well, he will go to the net, he reads situations well and he works hard defensively. When you couple some of those elements in his game with the character that he brings, he has grown into a very good National Hockey League player.”
Halpern’s former teammates beam with pride when they talk about him and see the type of player and leader he has become.
“He stepped up and has become a real good player in the league,” says Klee. “That’s what real good players do, they step up after they start off young. Not many guys come in their first year and make a big splash. They key is how you do in years two, three and four and becoming a better professional and a better hockey player.”
“He has done very well,” observes Konowalchuk. “He came in and took advantage of every opportunity that was given to him. That’s the first thing. He is a guy who works real hard and he is just a natural leader. He wants to be in charge and run the ship. You need guys like that. You’re going to have a very young team in Washington and he’s the kind of guy who can bring those young players along.”
Right now, Halpern’s concern is helping Team USA win the World Cup. He worked hard all summer and is vying for a key role on a Team USA roster that is teeming with top-end forwards. Halpern has no illusions about his role with this team; he knows he is on the bubble and knows what he needs to do to become one of the 12 forwards who will dress on a given night (there are 15 forwards on the roster).
“I’m going into this hoping that I can contribute as much as possible and to get a spot on that team and have a good role,” he assesses. “When I found out about it, it was a week before they announced it on TV and it was just a feeling of happiness for me. Then they announced the whole team and you start realizing who else is there and that these are the guys you grew up watching. I was cheering for Doug Weight and Mike Modano in 1996 when I was watching the World Cup on TV like everyone else. And now to be playing with these guys, it’s no different from my first day in the Caps locker room. Those were also guys who I had grown up watching. Maybe walking into that locker room for the first time is the hardest part and after that it turns into hockey. Once you get on the ice it becomes second nature. I’ll be very nervous and I’ll have a lot of jitters just because it will be such an unbelievable experience.”
Last Monday night Team USA took to the ice for its first World Cup tuneup, an exhibition game against Team Canada. When the clock started for the game’s opening faceoff, Halpern was there in the center circle, squaring off against Team Canada’s Kris Draper for the draw.
It was a much better and much more fitting vantage point than the one he had the last time he was in Columbus.