Jeff Halpern used to laugh when Chris Simon, his old Washington Capitals teammate, would refer to players as "suitcases." Of course, Halpern was just breaking into the league then. In his first six seasons, he knew only one club: his hometown Caps. For frequent-flyer Simon, on the other hand, Washington was just the latest stop in an odyssey that would take him to Quebec, Colorado, Chicago, New York (both franchises), Calgary and Minnesota.
But then a not-so-funny thing happened: Halpern became a "suitcase" himself. In 2006, when he qualified for free agency, he fell victim to the Capitals' youth movement — not to mention the constraints of the salary cap - and ended up signing with Dallas. For the next five years he lived your basic American Tourister existence, riding the NHL carousel to Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and finally Montreal.
It was never what Halpern wanted. He was, after all, the Caps' captain. He had grown up, in Potomac, following the team. But the business of sports is notoriously unsentimental — kind of like a baggage handler at an airport.
"You never envision that," he says of his years as a hockey journeyman. "There's a tremendous sense of pride in being able to play for one organization your whole career and feeling like you're wanted by that group and important to that team's winning. ... The bottom line is, you build roots and you build friendships, and it's always hard to leave a place."
Stories like Halpern's rarely have Walt Disney endings. Indeed, most veteran players wind up, sooner or later, on the Island of Lost Luggage — unclaimed and unloved. So it'll be quite a scene at Verizon Center on Saturday night when Jeff pulls on a Capitals sweater and skates out for the season opener against Carolina. He'll be wearing No. 15 this time around, not No. 11, which was retired in honor of Mike Gartner in 2008. But everything else about him should be familiar: the solid 5-foot-11, 198-pound frame, the boyish face (even at the age of 35) and especially the rink-rat determination and fundamental soundness that made him so popular with the fans.
Bruce Boudreau has had Halpern for only a handful of preseason games, but he's already developed an appreciation for him. "He works and he's in the right position at the right time and he gives you everything he's got," he says. "Last year [with the Canadiens] he scored 10 goals. He can move up and play second line, third line, fourth line. He kills penalties. He wins faceoffs. He does all the little things right. I don't know how many ways I can say he's a great contributor."
Let's face it, the Capitals haven't had enough players in recent years who have done "all the little things right." They've had enough talent to finish with the best record in the conference two years running, but winning the Stanley Cup usually comes down to the finer points of the game — such as doing your job. All 60 minutes of it (or longer, if need be). All 200 feet of it.
Naturally, Halpern is excited to be back on his home turf, excited to be playing on a club he considers "a powerhouse." It's a big change from when he was last here. The '05-06 Caps team, under Glen Hanlon, brought up the rear in the Southeast Division with a 29-41-12 record, 15 points worse than anybody else.
But even then, he says, "you could see signs that there was going to be a huge upswing. They had a lot of real good pieces in place. A lot of the guys [from that club] aren't around anymore, but they helped build the framework and create assets and pieces that are in place now."
The "good pieces" were Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin. Those are the only holdovers from Halpern's first stint with the Capitals. But remember (as he pointed out): The Caps wouldn't have Green if they hadn't traded Robert Lang to Detroit, and they wouldn't have Laich if they hadn't dealt Peter Bondra to Ottawa. (Another player on that '05-06 team, defenseman Steve Eminger, went to Philadelphia for a first-round draft pick that produced John Carlson.)
"It's hard to think about the business side of the game," he says, "but it's a tremendous opportunity to come back. I'm happy they were able to believe in me, and I'm happy to be able to contribute to the group."
His bride Kelley, father Mel and a fair number of friends will be at Verizon for Saturday's homecoming. (Would that his mother Gloria could be, too. Alas, she died in a highway accident in 2005.) Halpern expects be nervous — not just because it's the first game but because of "the need to perform and do things that help the team." On top of that, he says, "you're coming to a new team where you're trying to gain the respect of your teammates and coaches."
From the sound of things, he already has. "People respect everything he says and does," his coach says.
Jeff Halpern is back where he belongs, back skating for the Capitals. At long last, he can unpack his suitcase. How great would it be if he didn't need it again?
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