Jeff Halpern was hired as an assistant on Jon Cooper's Tampa Bay Lightning staff on the opening day of the 2018 Draft, completing an expeditious circuit from near-1,000 game NHL player to burgeoning coach toiling in the American League and back to the NHL behind the bench.
Halpern hung up his playing skates in 2014 in Phoenix following his 14th season in the NHL, three of which came with the Lightning from 2007 to 2010, and the undrafted forward from Princeton accumulated 26 goals, 25 assists and 51 points through his stops in Washington, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Montreal, the New York Rangers and Phoenix. Halpern returned to the Lightning organization for the 2015-16 season as a player development coach and was hired as a full-time assistant coach with the Syracuse Crunch in 2016-17, a season in which the Crunch advanced to the Calder Cup Finals.
Halpern is one of two new assistants joining Cooper's staff along with former Iowa Wild head coach Derek Lalonde. On Monday, Halpern took time to chat over the phone from Syracuse with TampaBayLightning.com's Bryan Burns about returning to the NHL as a coach, his role on the Lightning staff and whether he ever dreams of a comeback as a player.
What do you hope you can bring to the Lightning coaching staff?
I like to be able to teach and, with the guys I'm working with, bring a level of energy and competitiveness and try to create an identity of that group. Once everything's sorted out and you have your roles and your jobs and your players to work with, I think the biggest thing for me is to try to help create an identity with in that team of the guys that I'm working with.
Do you know exactly what your role on the Lightning coaching staff will be? Is there a specific group you'll be working with?
I'll work with the forwards and I think kind of the exact splits and every detail of the team, we'll have those conversations over the next month or so. Specifically, I'll be with the forwards. That's the group that I'm going to focus most of my attention on.
What was it like working with Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx and being on his staff for the last two seasons?
Even going back to working with (former Crunch head coach) Rob Zettler, he was a guy who helped bring me into this organization. I had a different role at that time, but I learned a lot. I think with Ben, he prides himself on coaching coaches. He's a very good team coach, very good working with players, but I think one of his best assets, at least for our group, was kind of the effort and the time that he puts in to coaching his own coaches. When you ask what did I learn in my time there, it was almost like taking a class on everything: on preparation, on coaching, on planning, on teaching and coming up with plans. The stuff that I learned there, I adapted it I think as well as I could, and I'm looking forward to using a lot of that and getting a little bit of freedom to just continue to do things in new ways.
How much have you gotten to know Jon Cooper these last couple years working in the Lightning organization and how do you feel the two of you will work together?I think as an organization, the Lightning do a great job of kind of keeping their staffs updated and personable, whether it's through development camp, through training camp, throughout the season, playoffs. I think when I first started, Tampa was on a deep run into the playoffs. Last year, Syracuse was in a deep run in the playoffs and this year obviously Tampa went far again. I think throughout those extended playoff runs, we've been given the opportunity to meet a lot of the coaches. I know Coop in that way, spoke to him a little bit more obviously in the interview process and then after at development camp and on the phone. But I'm looking forward to kind of seeing him on a day-to-day operation. I always admired the things I saw from afar and what he's doing there. So for me as a coach, I'm looking forward to working with him.
How has the transition from player to coach gone for you? Has it been what you expected?
I think the things I haven't expected are the things that people clearly say is what's going to be different, whether it's the hours or even the feel of playing versus coaching. There are those differences. I think at this time, it's been about four years of not playing, that chapter in my life is over. And I probably had a real good coach to work for as far as going from playing to coaching because I think Ben wanted us to think of it with kind of a coaching view on things. I think my playing experience helped me identify a little bit with the players at times, but I tried to limit that experience as much as I could and still kind of keep a coaching relationship at the same time.
Do you ever get the itch to play again?
No, and I avoid (competing in) drills or anything. On a game day when you're skating with a couple of the extra guys, a lot of times in Syracuse when our goalie coach would be in charge so I'm pretty much just out there, I would do it and try to make it as fun as possible. It wasn't so much that I have the itch to keep doing it, but I enjoy bringing that part of my life to coaching at times. Whether it's a 2-on-2 scrimmage or shooting drills with that group, nobody wants to be in a position -- whether they're hurt or healthy scratches -- of being out on a game day. So if there's any way to make it fun for those individuals, I've enjoyed getting in the middle of it.
How excited are you to get to Tampa and start working with a group that came within one game of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final last season?
I'm very excited. In the NHL now, there's so much parity, I don't think there's any real guarantees to it. But when you look at the group and kind of the track record of this group, I'm excited to become a part of it. I think probably one of the things I've appreciated the most in this transition is coming from within the organization, I've helped coach a number of these guys and I've worked with a lot of players in camp and know a lot of the young kids that are going to be at training camp. I played with a lot of the guys on the team. It's been a few years now, but I like the fact that I have a relationship with a lot of these guys. I don't have to try to meet new faces. I can kind of hit the ground running. I'm excited to do it. I'm excited to be a part of the next step here.