- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Many years ago a Washington reporter asked a young Maryland quarterback named Boomer Esiason what he was studying in college.

“Football,” the blunt and very honest Esiason replied.

Stephen Werner, 18, of Chevy Chase, is studying psychology at the University of Massachusetts. His father is a clinical psychologist and his mother is also a healing practitioner, so it is sort of like the apple not falling far from the tree.

But psychology is Plan B, Werner will tell you.

“I’m studying psychology and hopefully that will be somewhat of a backup plan. It’s something to fall back on, something I’m interested in if hockey doesn’t work out,” he said.

Boomer would love this young man’s outlook on life.

Werner is one of the 21 youngsters attending the Washington Capitals’ development camp, which continues through tomorrow at Piney Orchard. He attended previous Washington development camps as a pay-as-you-go outsider but is there now because the Caps drafted him with their second pick last month, midway through the third round (83rd overall).

“I’m the biggest Caps fan around,” he offered, a statement which might be challenged by the area’s first local NHL product, Jeff Halpern. “I was so nervous to go down [to Nashville] because I didn’t know if I’d get drafted on the first day. Then I was and it was the Caps, like a dream come true.”

What is immediately obvious at the Washington camp is that all of the 21 prospects are talented, most are large and many are fast. In the latter category, none are as fast as Werner.

“He’s a tremendous skater,” said general manager George McPhee, who puts a high priority on skating and the ability to do it in a hurry. “He has explosiveness and acceleration that might be at an elite level.”

One veteran NHL observer yesterday said Werner might be close to Peter Bondra speed and the Caps left wing has won the NHL’s fastest skater competition three times.

Werner’s progression into an NHL prospect is the result of several factors in the Washington area coming together. A sport formerly for the northern states has been transformed into one that is extending deeper south.

The area has seen a steady growth in the number of ice rinks and the building rate has not slowed. The Caps made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 and the awareness of the sport exploded across the area with youth programs springing up rapidly. And there was the Halpern factor, the local boy who went away to college, returned home and now plays for the hometown club.

For Werner, it started when a friend’s father discovered the two boys, then playing soccer at age 6, loved to skate. Hockey equipment soon appeared “and I just fell in love with it. I was lucky to have a really special group of players coming up in this area. There are a lot of guys now from my youth hockey team playing Division I hockey,” Werner said.

“The development is even better now than it was. And obviously Halpern has been a big help for youth hockey in the area. He’s helped in the sense of just showing me and all the other players in the area that it can be done, a player from Maryland can play professional hockey.”

Werner chose UMass because Don Cahoon, who coached Halpern at Princeton, now coaches the Minutemen. It is a budding program and had room for him to play as a freshman (37 games, 16-22-38) on right wing.

“He’s very fast, very agile, he can score and has a good shot,” said chief scout Ross Mahoney.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound wing will try out for the U.S. National Junior team next month.

“I want to do what’s best for my game and right now I think it’s going to be finishing college,” Werner said. “But … I’m hoping to do whatever is best for me to play professional hockey.”

Somewhere, Boomer is smiling.

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