Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The hockey world Jeff Halpern has known since his dad first started taking him to Washington Capitals games will change dramatically starting in September.

As a loyal Caps fan, Halpern grew up hating two teams — Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — with emphasis on the former because it always seemed like the Penguins ruined Washington seasons by winning in the playoffs.

But Halpern and the Dallas Stars made official yesterday what had been rumored for several days — that the 30-year-old center had signed a four-year deal with the Stars that will pay him $2 million a season.

In Dallas, Halpern will play both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia only once yearly or perhaps not at all — a drastic departure from seeing them four to eight times a season.

Halpern, the first Washington area player to make it to the NHL, spent his entire six-year career with the team he grew up watching. He first started practicing with the club during summers while attending Princeton. Later, as a free agent, he had his pick of suitors and rejected the Flyers so he could play nightly in front of family and friends.

“Playing in the area was a dream come true, obviously,” he said. “And I’m going to miss not playing in front of my dad and friends. I hope the fans understand because I’ve loved my time here, I really have. It would be wonderful if I got the same reception in Dallas.”

Dallas offered a deal twice as long and significantly richer than Washington’s offer.

“This was a real nice story in Washington, that a local kid realized his dream of playing in the NHL for his hometown team and was kept by that team,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “No other youngster playing in this area should doubt their ability to make it in the NHL one day. Jeff kicked in the door, and now others can take advantage of that.”

Halpern, a Montgomery County native, came up through the Lil Caps system and went on to play a season of Junior B in Stratford, Ontario, notching 29 goals and 83 points in 44 games. He signed with the Caps after completing classes at Princeton in the spring of 1999.

The spot in Dallas opened up when one of the Stars’ top centers, Jason Arnott (32 goals and 76 points last season), signed a five-year deal with Nashville. Halpern will join a mix that includes Mike Modano and Stu Barnes.

“My dad has been very supportive of this,” Halpern said. “He’s known all the details from the very start. But it’s going to be different; he could walk from work [to Verizon Center] to watch games. This has been a very hard decision for me to make.”

Halpern underwent knee surgery four years ago after an injury in a game at Montreal and last season missed 11 games with another knee injury. He said yesterday he might have returned sooner had he not rushed the rehab process and slowed his recovery.

Despite a slow start last year and a role change that saw him concentrate more on checking, Halpern had 44 points, the second-best total of his career. In 438 Caps games he recorded 87 goals and 127 assists.

But the Caps will miss more than Halpern’s scoring. In addition to serving as Washington’s best faceoff man (winning 55 percent), he supplied leadership as captain. He also represented his teammates with the NHL Players Association.

Meanwhile, six Caps filed for salary arbitration, the highest number for the team in one year. The hearings will be conducted from July 20 to Aug. 4 in Toronto. Nearly 70 players league-wide have filed, but most cases will be settled before hearings are held.

Caps asking for arbitration are defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and forwards Matt Bradley, Ben Clymer, Rico Fata, Matt Pettinger and Brian Sutherby.

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