- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

One player has decided to reverse the steady stream of locked-out NHL players heading for European leagues. Which prompts the question: Is Jeff Halpern back for good or only a rest stop while the work stoppage continues?

“It was time for me to come home,” the Montgomery County native said yesterday after spending a month playing for a second-division team in Switzerland.

He did his best to mask his frustration, but it still was evident.

“It’s not real encouraging,” the veteran of five seasons with the Washington Capitals said of the labor dispute between the league and the NHL Players Association. The lockout is in its 76th day; the season should have started more than six weeks ago.

At latest count, 284 NHL players, more than 40 percent of the league, have flocked to Europe to participate in one of the many leagues. Some went for the money, some to stay busy or in shape and some to experience the European environment.

“I met a lot of really great people over there,” Halpern said of his stay in the small town of Porrentruy. “It was truly a fun experience going to Switzerland, to a town where they’d never had an NHL player play for them before. It was fun to be a part of that, to have that role. And it was also fun to be a part of an experience where the community supported the team so well. The NHL could learn a lot from the European leagues about promoting the sport.”

But there was a similarity to the Caps team he had played for last season, a young squad that struggled. The rinks in Europe are Olympic size, wider than NHL ice surfaces, and that did nothing to speed the game up. Halpern, who led the Caps with 19 goals and 46 points last season, scored five goals and assisted on 12 in 15 games in Porrentruy.

What happens next for the Princeton graduate is up in the air. The time is rapidly approaching when a decision has to be made on cancellation of the season if hard bargaining doesn’t start, and successful negotiations seem like a remote possibility.

“I might just take time off, getting ready to play in the [IIHF] World Championship in April,” he said. “I might just approach that as the beginning of the season where I take a couple months off and start training in March.”

Halpern already has played for the United States in three world championships and represented his country earlier this month when it won the four-country Deutschland Cup in Hanover, Germany.

“That was awesome because Hanover is a great city. There were a bunch of American guys there, guys I had played with in the past,” he said. “We had a good team. It was good hockey, and it was a lot of fun.”

But apparently not the entire NHL contingent is having a good time playing in Europe. There are reports coming out of Russia, for instance, that some of the teams there are not fulfilling their obligations to moonlighting players (and vice versa) and that the competition in other areas is so poor it might set NHL careers back.

“I had a great experience playing over there,” Halpern said. “But in the end I became frustrated, and it was the right time to leave.”

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