By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
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).
"Scoring-wise, I'm not where I want it to be," Halpern said. "But it's never where I want it to be."
Halpern's line has been one of the Stars' most effective units in recent games and probably will match up frequently with the Capitals' top forward combination of Alex Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus and Chris Clark.
Halpern's adjustment to his new surroundings is a work in progress. Construction on his condo recently was completed after he spent the past few months crashing with teammates Jon Klemm and Eric Lindros, other friends and in hotels.
"I was living out of my car," he joked.
He's also settling into the Stars' veteran-laden locker room, far different from the one he left.
Dallas's payroll is almost $42 million, nearly $11 million more than the Capitals'. Expectations are similarly disparate. The Stars have a record of 16-8-0 (32 points); the Capitals are 9-9-6 (24 points).
"Coming here from Day One, it's been we want to win the Stanley Cup," Halpern said. "Every little thing is about winning the Cup. I love getting yelled at after the losses this year. Every loss is like the end of the world."
Halpern said he expects 30 to 40 friends and family members to attend tonight's game.
"At least there will be one section that's not booing," Halpern joked. "It's going to be fun to come back and play in front of my friends and family."
Many of his former teammates are excited to see him, too. But that doesn't mean he'll receive any special treatment on the ice.
"You don't take it easy on him because he's your friend," said Zubrus, who played a couple of rounds of golf with Halpern in August. "You go at it hard, and afterward you have a laugh about it."
Brian Sutherby added: "When you get on the ice, there's no friends out there. When he has the puck, I'm going to hit and play him like he's any other guy."
Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon knows how Halpern is going to feel.
"Going back to Vancouver was extremely difficult," said Hanlon, who spent five seasons with the Canucks as a goalie. "You go back, and you have all kinds of emotions that run from excited, to wishing you were still there, and all those things. It's a very emotional day."