When the Washington Capitals open training camp on Saturday, Jeff Halpern’s NHL career will have come full circle. The 23-year-old from Potomac who was a long shot to make the Caps as their first homegrown player in 1999 is now a 35-year-old veteran free agent signee.
Back then, Halpern was the kid on a defensive-minded line with veterans Ulf Dahlen and Steve Konowalchuk. Now, Halpern will likely fill the same role with two much younger players
Eleven years in the NHL and another in Switzerland during the 2004-05 lockout haven’t aged Halpern’s boyish face or dimmed his enthusiasm for the game.
“I take a tremendous amount of pride in having played this long,” said Halpern, who has 342 points in his 792 games. “It further imprints me in the storybook of the NHL. I like to be thought of as a professional who knows how to prepare, takes every game, every practice seriously and does things the right way. I don’t feel old, but I do want to be a role model for younger players.”
That’s a big reason why the Caps brought Halpern back after he spent the past five seasons with Dallas, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and then Montreal.
General manager George McPhee, who signed Halpern out of Princeton in 1999 and let him leave as a free agent seven years later, called him “a good leader” and added, “He can go up and down the lines. He’s really good on faceoffs. He’s a really good penalty-killer and he can generate some offense.”
Troy Bouwer, a fellow summer signee, won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010 but the 26-year-old looks up to Halpern who has never even won a playoff series.
“Guys really respect Jeff,” Brouwer said. “He’s a guy that everyone kinda models themselves after.”
Halpern is especially thrilled when he hears that kind of comment from aspiring Washington area players.
“I’m really happy that there are so many more opportunities for youth hockey players then there were when I was growing up here,” said Halpern, who left Churchill High after ninth grade for a New Hampshire prep school to improve his chances of playing in college. “It’s nice to have a second chance to play back home. I want to enjoy it more this time.”
The uniforms, practice facility and all but four teammates – Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin – have changed since Halpern last skated for Washington in 2006 as has the team’s place in the NHL scheme of things.
And maybe Halpern’s wisdom, work ethic and hustle will rub off on some of his younger, more talented teammates and finally get him and the Caps over the top come playoff time.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.