Once the Caps' Captain, Halpern Returns Merely a Star
Thursday, November 30, 2006
When Jeff Halpern skates onto the ice at Verizon Center for warmups tonight and sees those familiar black, blue and bronze uniforms at the other end, six seasons' worth of memories will rush through his mind: his first NHL game, his first goal, the big wins, some even bigger losses.
It has been almost five months since the veteran center signed as a free agent with the Dallas Stars, leaving behind his hometown hockey team, the club he captained last season, the one he cheered for as a boy.
The decision to leave the Washington Capitals was tough. Coming back for the first time is going to be tougher.
"I'm looking forward to it, but I'm also looking forward to when it's over," Halpern said by telephone this week. "It's going to be weird because it's going to open everything up all over again."
Halpern grew up in Potomac, played for the Little Capitals youth team and attended games at Capital Centre with his father, Mel, who had been a season ticket holder for years. When he signed as a free agent in 1999 and earned a roster spot, the story seemed almost too good to be true.
Thanks to his local roots and feisty play, he quickly became a fan favorite. And in September 2005, he followed in the footsteps of his childhood heroes, Dale Hunter and Rod Langway, when he was named the 12th captain in Capitals history.
But there was no fairy-tale ending.
Halpern's contract expired at the end of last season, and negotiations on a new deal never gained traction. So on July 1, Halpern became a unrestricted free agent and, in a matter of days, agreed to a four-year, $8 million contract with Dallas, a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. The rebuilding Capitals felt it wasn't in their best interest to retain Halpern at that price, even if it meant losing a favorite son and their on-ice leader.
"It was a difficult process," said Halpern, who averaged 15 goals and 21 assists as a Capital. "The best advice I got during this whole thing was to never look back after making my decision, just look forward to my new team. [But] I kept thinking about things. It's like a divorce."
Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig, who was Halpern's roommate on the road, has maintained a close relationship with Halpern, speaking often to his former teammate by phone.
"At first, Jeff was second-guessing himself for signing there because of what we were doing here," Kolzig said. "There's always that discomfort when you go to a new team because you don't know everybody, and you are worried about what they think of you. But after a couple of weeks of training camp, he got comfortable there."
Halpern has three goals and five assists and plays on a checking line with wingers Niklas Hagman and Patrik Stefan. Halpern ranks second among Stars centers in ice time (16 minutes 14 seconds per game) and first in faceoff percentage (51.1).