Halpern went wherever, and whenever, he could rent ice time. Often that meant a pre-dawn drive to Ashburn Ice House, a 35-minute commute from his Bethesda home.
“I had it down,” said Halpern, who returned this offseason to the Washington Capitals after five years away from his hometown team. “I would wake up at 5, be in my car by 5:10, get there around 5:45 and be on the ice by 6.”
Halpern became a blur of motion on the ice, moving backward on one skate while tossing a medicine ball to a partner, jumping over three-foot high hurdles spread five feet apart and blasting down the ice at full speed as local power-skating guru Wendy Marco, stopwatch in hand, barked out times.
The wakeup call came early and the work was exhausting. But the situation Halpern faced was dire: He was a 34-year-old coming off a subpar season that had begun in Tampa Bay and ended in Los Angeles, where he recorded only two points in the season’s final 16 games. He did not have a contract for the 2010-11 season.
In fact, it was starting to look as though Halpern would have to accept a professional tryout, a humbling possibility for a player who in 2006 signed a four-year, $8 million contract with Dallas.
“You kind of start hitting the panic button,” he said.
‘His career on the line’
There comes a time in every NHL veteran’s career when he realizes that he’s lost a step. For some, it happens when they get beat to a loose puck by a younger player. For Halpern, it came during a meeting with Kings Coach Terry Murray.
“Terry said, as you get on in years, skating becomes so important and that I should work on some skating stuff,” Halpern said. “I was taken aback by it.”
Halpern, a native of Potomac and the only NHL player born and bred in the Washington area, had already been considering a new offseason training regimen, one that consisted exclusively of on-ice workouts rather than the traditional running, biking and weightlifting he had done since high school. That conversation with Murray clinched his decision to make some drastic changes to his skating stride, a delicate undertaking not unlike a professional golfer or baseball player retooling his swing.
Halpern had his first practice with Marco, a mother of two from Leesburg, a few weeks after returning from Los Angeles.
“She said to me, ‘I can’t believe you’ve played in the NHL that long without somebody changing that, or mentioning your skating before,’ ” Halpern recalled.
“This was his career on the line,” Marco said.
Marco parlayed her background as a competitive figure skater into a career training hockey players. She began coaching in 1993, and 10 years later founded Cold Rush, a hockey academy that trains more than 800 students, ranging from Division I players to 4-year-old mini mites.