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 game."
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.