- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Jeff Halpern came off the ice yesterday and the first thing he did was apologize.

"I was awful tripping, falling down, couldn't pass, it was brutal, eh?" he said, not really looking for an answer after passing judgment.

He was right but that was pretty much the story for all 21 players as the Washington Capitals opened phase two of their summer orientation for rookies, the on-ice portion at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, Md.

Halpern passed through this stage last year going through a summer of self-inflicted migraine headaches over constant worry about his status with the team.

There is certainly little reason to worry now, at least not to the extent he did last summer, not after a standout rookie campaign, which is probably why he was having a nervous breakdown yesterday as he stepped off an ice surface for the first time in nearly two months.

"Of course I'm worried about it, absolutely," he replied when asked of the threat of a sophomore jinx. "I'll probably worry about it next year and the year after that, too."

Halpern is a native of Rockville, Md., who became a standout in youth hockey in the area while growing up in Montgomery County. He parlayed that into a scholarship to Princeton (degree in economics). Caps scouts kept going to see Tigers games to watch a defenseman the team liked and always came away raving about a certain center Halpern.

He was a bundle of nerves last summer leading up to camp, was absolutely a basket case during camp and constantly looked over his shoulder once he made the team. It is not a lack of confidence, it is facing reality an American coming out of the mid-Atlantic, a graduate of an Ivy League school trying to make it in a sport where few of his ilk have prospered, a game being overtaken by Europeans.

"I'm working harder this summer than I did last year because there are so many good forwards coming into camp," he said after skating with 14 draft picks. "It wasn't until maybe a couple weeks were left in the season last year when I actually felt safe going to the rink. That's good at times, I think, when you're going to the rink and you know you even have to perform in practice.

"It's just that there are so many good players out there that it wasn't until the very end that I felt comfortable, playing in a lot of key situations, a lot of big moments, and that showed they had confidence in me. When you get opportunities like that it's fun."

He finished 13th in the league in voting for the all-rookie team. He had 18 goals and 29 points, four power-play goals and four short-handed, advancing from fourth line center to the second line. He also led the Caps in scoring (2-1-3) in their short-lived playoff drive.

And still he worries.

"He approaches training a little different than other guys," said conditioning coach Frank Costello. "He is very competitive about it, goes after things with a passion. A lot of times I have to hold him back some because he wants to go out and bury himself every day. It's easy to see he's on a mission and has a great passion to achieve his goal."

But it is because of that passion and drive that coach Ron Wilson doesn't worry about a jinx from any class.

"A lot of that stuff comes from guys who think they've made it and take it a little easy," he said. "I don't see that coming from Jeff. He's too driven, too focused to worry about a jinx. He's working harder this summer than he did last year and he really drove himself last summer."

The playoffs ended prematurely with the wipeout by Pittsburgh, a source of embarrassment, he said, while playing for Team USA in the World Championships last spring. His goal once making the team, of course is to erase that black mark.

"I got a taste last year and I can't imagine another thing I'd rather be doing in my life," Halpern said. "It's something where it's in your power to obtain and it means working hard and getting prepared mentally. Even if it means sacrificing stuff during the season and in the summer, it's worth it. I think I finally realized how great the sport was at the end of the year. Now I'd like to play year-round."

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