Mel and Gloria had heard the comments frequently: The best players - eh, don't ya know? - came out of places like Pickering, Ontario, and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan - not Potomac, Md.
But now Jeff was at a New England prep school with a good reputation for
hockey. He made a lot of friends, played well - and saw his parents a lot. The
Halperns regularly made the 1,020-mile round trip from Potomac to Concord in
By his senior year, Jeff had played a lot of hockey, but still hadn't
attracted interest from NCAA Division I schools. Only smaller, Division III
programs came after him.
"It looked like everything was coming to an end," he recalls. "I had kind
of an empty feeling."
So he did something daring.
`A year abroad'
He deferred his admission to Bowdoin College in Maine and moved to Canada.
In Stratford, Ontario, he roomed with the family that owned the Startford
Cullitons (named after a local plumber) and played terrific hockey among the
"It seemed kind of strange at first," Gloria Halpern says. "But not
everyone knows what they want to do when they finish high school. So I came to
see it as like a year abroad for Jeff. He stayed with a remarkably warm and
loving family - the Pipers."
The kid from Maryland did OK. He scored 48 goals and notched 96 assists in
72 regular-season and playoff games.
The Cullitons had a championship season.
And every Ivy League school with a hockey team - Yale, Harvard, Cornell,
Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton - noticed.
The Halperns' plan - to get Jeff some northern exposure and hope for the
best - had worked.
He followed his sister to Princeton, majored in economics and played
varsity hockey from 1995 through 1999. In his junior year, he had 28 goals and
25 assists in 36 games.
"That was a breakout year for me," Jeff says, "and I started getting
The Caps, the team he had grown up watching and cheering, invited him to
their rookie camp at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, their training facility, in
Odenton. Coach Ron Wilson took a look and considered Jeff the best skater
there. He invited him to practice during the summer with veteran Caps who
lived in the area.
"It was my first time on ice with NHL players," Jeff says. "It definitely
wasn't like a reach-out program; they needed guys to skate with. ... But it
was a great experience for me. It made me focus even more, gave me a lot of
confidence going into my senior year at Princeton."
And his senior year at Princeton gave him confidence that the NHL was just
a phone call away.
The 1998-99 varsity recorded the most hockey wins in school history and
shared the Ivy League title with Yale. Halpern was team captain and leading
scorer. He was co-winner of the university's Roper Trophy, for athletic and
Sports agents started calling. About 10 of them talked to Mel about
representing his son. At least 15 NHL teams were interested in Jeff.
But Jeff was interested in only one - the Caps. He signed with Washington
at the end of his senior season at Princeton. He didn't bother with an agent,
and didn't play the Caps against other teams - and doesn't regret that both
decisions probably cost him some money.
After a hitch with the Caps' minor-league affiliate in Portland, Maine,
Jeff Halpern arrived at MCI Center in fall 1999.
His first NHL goal was anticlimactic, coming in a 7-1 loss to the Anaheim
Mighty Ducks. But he played with the Caps all season and had an impressive
playoff series last spring. Now, he's solidified a spot as the third-line
"When I see him on the ice now," says his mother, "I try to remember what
he was like when he was little. I can still see him."
And, of course, it all seems to have flashed by in an instant.
"I'll always appreciate how much my parents did for me," says Jeff, who has
developed a faint Canadian accent. "I guess I would have felt bad if my dad
didn't get as much joy out of it as I did. His vacation would not be to go
sightseeing in London. His would be to go to some kiddie hockey tournament in
some Canadian small town."
Mel Halpern doesn't have the van anymore; he doesn't need it.
To see his son play hockey these days, all he has to do is step out of his
office at the U.S. Court of Appeals, near the White House, and walk about 20
minutes to MCI Center. After the game, he takes the subway home.
200,000 miles not too far to chase an NHL dream
The Capitals' Jeff Halpern, the league's only Marylander, recognizes the sacrifices his parents made driving him to places with stronger programs - like Canada, New England and upstate New York.
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.