Summer’s the season when the Washington Capitals become world travelers. Calle Johansson takes the kids to see their grandparents in Sweden. Sergei Gonchar is getting married back home in Russia. Trevor Linden is back in Vancouver.
And then there’s Jeff Halpern. A summer trip home is about as exciting as a daily commute for the Potomac native, the first Cap to grow up in the area. But that monotony is just fine with the 25-year-old center, who’s still finding new things to do at home.
After all, longtime Caps such as Peter Bondra, Olie Kolzig and Steve Konowalchuk have a better feel for the attractions of D.C. and its environs than does Halpern, who wasn’t even old enough to drive when he last lived in the area for an extended period.
“Other than a week at the Calgary stampede the past two summers, I really haven’t done much traveling,” Halpern said. “I’ll go away for the weekend to see friends, but I don’t like getting out of my routine.”
That routine revolves around staying in shape. Halpern, who has lived in an apartment in Bethesda for a year, hops on the Beltway every weekday morning like so many other Washingtonians. He arrives at Sportfit in Bowie by 8:30 so he can work out with the handful of teammates who spend most or all of their summers in the area. Halpern, Bondra, Joe Reekie, Brendan Witt, Trent Whitfield, prospect Jakub Cutta and ex-Cap Craig Berube usually work out for 2? hours under the eye of Caps strength coach Frank Costello.
“Jeff’s one of those guys who would train all day every day if I would tell him to,” Costello said. “He called me as soon as he got off the plane from Europe [where Halpern played for the United States team in May’s World Championships]. Jeff looks forward to training. He knows a lot of his success hinges on being in better shape than his opponent.”
Many of Costello’s hockey-specific drills involve balance and stability. Halpern’s not fazed by the grueling and often-exotic exercises.
“Jeff takes everything as a challenge,” Costello said. “He wants to be good and he’s tenacious. He can work through the pain.”
That’s also characteristic of Halpern’s on-ice game. He and his teammates recently began skating again for about an hour a day at the team’s Piney Orchard practice facility in preparation for the start of training camp in September.
“It’s great to be able to skate pretty much when you want,” said Halpern, who left home for a New Hampshire prep school after ninth grade largely because Churchill High School didn’t have a hockey team and because ice time was so hard to find. “I played for 10 years in a good league in Reston, but you could never get ice time to work on your skills. Right now, I’m working on my stickhandling and getting a little more explosive with my stride.”
Despite two solid seasons Caps coach Ron Wilson called him the team’s MVP late last season and his local roots, Halpern hasn’t exactly exploded into the consciousness of area fans. Far from it.
“It’s nice to be able to go out for dinner and not get noticed,” Halpern said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for Cal Ripken to try and eat a meal in a restaurant.”
Those who know Halpern well, such as his buddies from Churchill, sometimes tease him about Washington’s seemingly annual playoff failure against Pittsburgh (although no Cap has produced more against the Penguins the past two springs than Halpern’s four goals and eight points). More often, however, they marvel that the normal-sized guy 5-foot-11, 198 pounds from the neighborhood has made it big in the NHL. And Halpern wasn’t even drafted out of Princeton, a university which hasn’t produced any other hockey standouts.
“I feel lucky just to be in the NHL and extremely lucky to be playing at home in Washington,” said Halpern, whom the Caps signed as a free agent in 1999.
With Adam Oates whose 69 assists last season tied new Cap Jaromir Jagr for the NHL lead feuding with the organization and Linden having struggled after being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in March, the Caps are luckier than ever that they have Halpern, who made it to the NHL in 1999 after playing just six games in the minors.
Halpern had 18 goals, 11 assists and a plus-21 defensive rating as a rookie and improved to 21 goals and 21 assists last season with a plus-13 rating. He teamed with Konowalchuk and Ulf Dahlen on a line that throttled most of the league’s top offensive trios. Sports Illustrated termed Halpern and co. “the league’s most underrated line.” The Hockey News preferred “the best shutdown line” in the NHL.
“Everybody is starting to appreciate what that line does,” Wilson said after the Caps shut out the Penguins 1-0 in Game 1 of the playoffs.
And the hard-working Halpern is right in the middle of it.