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Hometown Hero

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Jeff Halpern grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, watching the likes of Rod Langway and Dale Hunter – his two favorite players – lift and lead the Washington Capitals from obscurity to legitimacy. On Friday, Halpern assumes the mantle of Langway and Hunter’s legacy when he becomes the 12th player to serve as the Capitals’ captain.

Now 29, Halpern was born in Potomac, MD and his parents were Capitals’ season ticket holders. He grew up going to Capitals games at the old Capital Centre in Landover and began playing in local youth hockey leagues at an early age.

His ascension to the NHL began on March 29, 1999 when he signed with Washington as a non-drafted free agent after concluding his collegiate career at Princeton. He led the ECAC in goals as a junior and senior, attracting the interest of a few NHL teams in the process. But for Halpern, Washington was the place he wanted to play. He signed with the Caps and got into six late-season games with the AHL Portland Pirates. The Caps shared the Portland affiliate with the Blackhawks that season, and Halpern was one of a whopping 63 players who donned a Pirates sweater in 1998-99. Halpern came to training camp with the Caps in the fall of 1999, and was given little chance of making the team. But he had a terrific camp and basically forced his way onto the roster. He played his first NHL game on Oct. 2, 1999, a 4-3 loss to the Panthers in Florida.

“My first game was a dream come true and everything since then has been gravy,” he says. “I have as much fun today as I did back then and maybe even appreciate it even more, being a little bit older.”

At this time six years ago, Halpern was a rookie center with six games worth of professional experience trying to crack a veteran-laden Washington Capitals roster. He succeeded in that quest, and was the lone rookie to last throughout the entire season with a deep and talented team. Two seasons removed from the lone Stanley Cup finals visit in franchise history, the 1999-00 Capitals rolled up 102 points – the second highest total in team history – on their way to the second division title in their history and the first of back-to-back Southeast Division championships.

“We had a lot of veteran guys who were in the lineup when Halpy came along,” remembers Caps defenseman Brendan Witt. “Adam Oates, Peter Bondra, Joe Reekie, Mike Eagles – the list goes on and on. Halpy was quiet and he knew his place. He was the only rookie on the team but he earned his spot.”

Indeed, he did. Halpern netted 18 goals, the most by a Washington rookie since Milan Novy – a 31-year-old NHL rookie, but a veteran of the Czech pro leagues – tallied 18 goals in 1982-83. Halpern tied for the NHL lead among rookies in plus/minus at plus-21, and tied for second among Capitals in that category. He led the team with four shorthanded goals, a Capitals rookie record. He finished fourth on the team in goals and was the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for March. Halpern also tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with three points (two goals, one assist) in five games.

The first of Halpern’s NHL goals came on Oct. 19 at MCI Center. It was the lone Washington goal in a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Miika Elomo – his lone NHL career point – and Dmitri Mironov assisted.

“Growing up as a kid in the Rockville-Bethesda area, he watched the Caps and he was on the Little Caps hockey team,” Witt relates. “He knew what it meant to be a Capital – to have a lunch bucket and be willing to go to work every day. He still brings that work ethic every day. Dale Hunter and [Steve Konowalchuk] were guys who led by example and they’ve rubbed off on Halpy. He is still the kind of guy who comes out and works hard every day at practice and in the games.”

Halpern never played with Hunter but was a longtime linemate of Konowalchuk’s. Before Halpern came into the league, Konowalchuk often skated on a line with Hunter.

“In different teams and organizations there is a trickle-down effect,” says Halpern. “I wasn’t fortunate enough to play with Dale Hunter but the guys that played with him carried a big piece of him with them. Steve Konowalchuk, Calle Johansson, Brendan Witt – they all learned from and looked up to Huntsy.

“I was one of maybe two guys under the age of 25 when I was a rookie and we had so many veterans to look up to. Me, I kind of latched onto Steve Konowalchuk, Ulf Dahlen and Adam Oates. I could see how they approached the game, how they respected the game and what they did to prepare on a day-to-day basis. They all respected the game and worked hard at it and I think that’s what this team is trying to get back to, making it difficult for other teams and making it so playing the Caps is a hard thing. When you have a team like that you are going to win your fair share of games. Although we have a young team now, it’s the direction we want to go in as these guys develop. It’s the framework that this organization wants to put those guys in.”

Even in many Canadian and Original Six cities, having a hometown kid grow up to captain the local team he rooted for as a kid is a rare occurrence.

“It’s one of the reasons that we look to him for leadership,” says Caps coach Glen Hanlon. “He has so much time and heart and soul committed to this organization and this area. It gives him and advantage over all of us and I put myself in that group. We grew up in other parts of North America so his attachment to this group and this organization is huge and I think it shows. He is one of the players who plays hard every single night and one of the players who, every single time he puts the jersey on you can tell that he is proud to do it.”

“Jeff has the benefit of knowing this organization as well as any captain can know any organization,” says Washington general manager George McPhee, “as well as the benefit of being up close and personal with people like Dale Hunter and Steve Konowalchuk, but also watching a Rod Langway for so many years. It’s unique and can only help Jeff and help this hockey club. I think we’re lucky that we have these sorts of things coming together like this.”

When Langway arrived in Washington and took over the captaincy 23 years ago, Washington had never reached the playoffs. He helped install a winning culture and a degree of pride and work ethic that has been passed along since.

“I feel fortunate to be able to come into the league with as many veterans as we had,” says Halpern. “We had unbelievable teams. I learned so much from Adam Oates, Ulf Dahlen, Mike Eagles, James Black and Joe Sacco. There are so many little things you can pick up. The coaches do a great job of coaching but you need the veteran players to groom the younger players in everything from hockey to how to act in the locker room and how to act after a game. There is a lot that goes into it.

“[In 2003-04], after some of those losses the last thing you wanted to do was to think up another way to describe what went wrong and what was happening. But there has been a lot of professionalism in that locker room for a long time. Younger guys will learn in time. I’ve played less than 400 games. It’s a big difference for someone watching me. I had Adam Oates and Sylvain Cote and guys like that. It means so much to a locker room and to a team to have guys like that.”

Halpern grew up wanting to play hockey, wanting to reach the NHL and wanting to play for the Capitals. Wearing the captain’s “C” never occurred to him.

“I never thought of having a letter,” he declares. “I always think it’s a group effort and the teams that win are the teams that have a collection of veterans to look up to and to lean on. You don’t just look at one guy to take on that load but it is something that I will take a lot of pride in. It’s nice to have [goaltender] Olie [Kolzig] around, he has been the leader of this team for as long as I have been here and [defenseman Brendan Witt], who has been a captain here. To have two guys like that to look up to it only makes this transition a little easier.”
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