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 the Dodge.

"At least on one occasion," Mel says, "I drove to St. Paul's on Saturday for a game, then back to Maryland on Saturday night with Jeff. He played for the Little Caps on Sunday. I returned him to St. Paul's on Sunday night, before my return drive to Maryland on Sunday late."

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 natives.

"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 attention."

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 scholastic achievement.

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.

NHL arrival

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 center.

"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.