Making the Little Caps meant Jeff would be playing more competitive hockey - with the closest away game in Philadelphia. That's about when Mel Halpern bought the Dodge Caravan - for trips to places like Buffalo and Toronto. It's also when he realized that his kid was as good as many skaters from the blade-and-stick culture of the Northeast.

The league in which the Little Caps competed, the Atlantic Hockey League, formed an all-star team for spring and summer tournaments in Canada, and coaches from New York and New Jersey - "wheelers and dealers," Mel calls them - invited Jeff north for practices and games. Mel Halpern thought nothing of driving his son to Bridgeport, Conn., for an evening practice, then returning to Maryland the same night.

"We were in Ottawa July 1, Canada Day, five years in a row, for tournaments," Mel says. "We went to a tournament in Montreal three or four years in a row. Jeff was getting exposed to the best players on the East Coast."

If not the best players in North America.

"I've looked at the programs from some of those tournaments we played in," adds Jeff, peeling off his pads after a recent Caps practice, "and it's like looking at an NHL roster."

From early fall through winter and spring and into summer, Mel Halpern logged hundreds of hours behind the wheel of the Caravan. He rigged up a small television and video cassette player so his son and a teammate could watch a movie during the long road trips.

"My dad didn't mind [the driving]; he loved hockey," Jeff says. "It was tough for my mom and my sister, though. They couldn't make all the trips, and we'd be gone almost every [winter] weekend."

Leaving little room for a family's social life.

"We were blessed with wonderful friends who understood that, with all this hockey, we weren't going to make every party," Gloria Halpern says. "We had no family here and friends were very important, but they understood when we said, `Well, Jeff has a tournament this weekend, and we're not going to be around.' They were very supportive."

The Halperns never insisted Jeff devote himself to hockey. Nor did they push him to play.

"It's what I wanted to do," he says. "On Saturday night, I'd rather be playing a game than going to a party."

Prepping his skills

In his freshman year at Churchill High School in Potomac, it was clear that, if he wanted his hockey skills to grow - if he wanted to get into a top college with a competitive hockey program - he would have to go north. Churchill, like most high schools in Maryland, did not have a hockey team.

Says Mel: "That's when we decided to do the prep school thing."

The $15,000-a-year New England prep school thing.

Matt Mulgrave, the hockey-playing son of friends, had attended St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., where he'd drawn the notice of college coaches. He ended up playing at Harvard; today, he's an investment banker. It was Mulgrave's father, Frank, who persuaded the Halperns to send Jeff to St. Paul's as well.

They did, and it hurt, and not just financially.

"The same year our daughter went to college, our son went to prep school," Mel says. "I got sick when both kids left, I really did. It took me a couple years to get over it."

The point of "the prep school thing" was to get Jeff into a good college with a hockey team.

"Did I expect [Jeff to play in the NHL]? No. Did it go through my head? Yes. I thought, `It's possible; I'm not going to give that up.' But the main objective at the time was college hockey, and that was very difficult for a kid from this area."