Mel Halpern's Dodge Caravan seemed to be in perpetual motion. The minivan crisscrossed North America as Mel and Gloria Halpern followed their son, Jeff, and his hockey dreams. For more than a decade, they churned through blustery Canadian snowstorms and piercing New England nights. Didn't matter how long it took. Didn't matter if Mel had to work in the morning. Whenever possible, the Halperns watched their son play.
They've seen games in Phoenix and Toronto. Mel has left work early at the U.S. Court of Appeals, driven to New Hampshire for a prep school game, then turned around and driven about 600 miles back to Potomac just in time to head back to work. Sometimes he'd do it twice a week. Whatever it would take to help Jeff pursue his goal of playing in the NHL, that's what the Halperns would do.
They still can't really fathom that Jeff now is in training camp with the Washington Capitals -- they've had season tickets since the team's inception in 1974 -- and has a good shot to open the season on their roster. They realize their son is on the cusp of being one of the first players born and raised in the Washington area to play in the NHL, but they don't want to jinx anything. They just want to let this drama play out. They just want to see Jeff in a Capitals sweater on opening night with their own eyes.
Little Capital Grows Up
"I think of the sacrifices my mother and father made every day," Jeff Halpern, 23, said. "My dad was always driving me all over the place and driving through the night to get to my games in Boston or Chicago. And my mom made a lot of trips also and spent a lot of weekends at home without my dad and me around while I was growing up. My mom and my sister [Jenny] are probably my two biggest fans. My family always understood what I was trying to do and supported me in every way."
Soccer moms are in the news these days, but hockey parents deserve special kudos. They're the ones shelling out thousands of dollars for equipment that's quickly outgrown. They're the ones up at the crack of dawn for 5 a.m. weekday practices in rinks so frigid you almost hope your coffee spills on your hands. They're the ones cringing each time their baby is smashed into the boards.
Halpern's parents helped Jeff into skates at age 3; by age 9 he was playing all over the East Coast with the Little Capitals' youth team. They based family vacations around Jeff's hockey camps and shot all over the map for big tournaments each summer. They let him leave home at 15 to attend St. Paul's, a powerhouse prep school in New Hampshire. They helped haul him to Canada to play junior hockey when college teams said Jeff was still too small to play for them.
They were always giving. They were always there.
"It's almost a fairy tale in a sense," said John Osidach, Jeff's coach with the Little Capitals. "Here's a kid who always knew he had something special, no matter who said he was too small or he wouldn't make it. That's what gets me excited -- here's a kid who actually went out and did it by working incredibly hard. He could have been very discouraged at a young age, but he always fought through it. He always had his head on straight. He came from a great family. He was always wonderful to deal with.
"And his father is unbelievable. He was like an animal. He would drive anywhere. He would do everything possible to get to Jeff's games. I remember one time he drove something like 2,000 miles in one weekend."
Mel Halpern never played hockey as a child, but fell in love with the game when he moved to Washington from New York more than 25 years ago. His son was playing at age 4, and by 6 Jeff was tearing up the basement walls practicing his shot. "He's shooting tennis balls, I'm in net, and my life is flashing before my eyes," is how dad describes it. They went to countless Capitals games together and Jeff began dreaming of playing for the hometown team.
Capitals president and minority owner Dick Patrick coached Halpern's youth teams for a few years. When the Capitals trained in Europe 10 years ago, Halpern was part of a youth team Patrick assembled for the trip. Patrick's son, Chris, played at Princeton with Halpern. He knows how minuscule the odds are for a boy from Potomac to play in the NHL. "It's very hard to play youth hockey here, with the time commitment and the money," Dick Patrick said. "I know how difficult it is from coaching here. And by the time they're ready for high school they have to leave if they're going to continue their development. It's almost an impossible dream."
Children in this area don't have the same access to ice as do children in hockey hotbeds such as Minneapolis or Detroit. The local competition isn't as strong, so teams have to venture far just to keep up. Once they hit high school, if they have any NHL ambitions, they must head north to a boarding school or junior hockey team. For Halpern it was even tougher. He was a late bloomer and teams rarely take shots on short kids, especially ones from Maryland. Hockey players come from places like Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and Thunder Bay, Ontario. Potomac doesn't exist. Prep schools shied away. Junior teams shied away. NHL teams shied away.
"As soon as they find out you're from Potomac they're not going to look at you," Osidach said. "That's the thing you always fight if you're not from New England, Minnesota or Michigan. You can be just as good as the other kid, but unless you're a lot better, they're going to go with the kid from those areas."
With that in mind, the Halperns allowed Jeff to attend prep school in New Hampshire, although it killed them to let go so soon. Jeff played on Wednesdays and Saturdays and Mel was ever present. After graduation, when the scholarships weren't coming in, Jeff headed to a junior league in Ontario to prove himself again. Jeff shined in an 80-game season; Mel made it to at least half the games. The Dodge was rarely in the driveway.
The effort landed Jeff at Princeton, and that's where everybody figured the saga would end. But he grew, worked out every day and by his junior year the Capitals were watching him closely. They invited him to their summer camp in 1998 and once they got to know Jeff Halpern the person, they wanted him even more.
"When we had a chance to see him firsthand and see his approach, that's when we started to get a really good feeling," said Shawn Simpson, director of hockey operations. "For whatever reason a lot of players go unnoticed in the draft and end up having very good NHL careers. I think Jeff has a very bright future. Jeff's greatest quality is he's just a great kid."
Last spring, after his senior season, Halpern (listed as 6 feet, 195 pounds) was free to negotiate with any NHL team. At least five clubs -- including the Detroit Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champions at the time -- were hotly pursuing him. But Halpern negotiated solely with Washington, and quickly signed a two-year contract with a $400,000 signing bonus. (The Red Wings were prepared to match if not surpass the offer, team officials confirmed.)
Halpern remembered all the Capitals games he and his father attended; he recalled idolizing Rod Langway and Mike Gartner; he thought back to all the great and painful moments in Capitals history -- Pat LaFontaine's overtime playoff goal broke his heart in 1987; Dale Hunter had him bouncing off the walls after a series-ending goal against Philadelphia in 1988. The decision to sign with Washington was easy.
"I feel a loyalty to the team," Halpern said. "The dream, obviously, is to one day be on the ice where I watched so many people before. It's even more of a thrill if you can reach that dream, it's even more of a fulfillment."
Homegrown Hockey Hero
That time is rapidly approaching. Halpern is a strong candidate to make the team as the fourth-line center. Even if he starts in the minors, he's very much in the Capitals' plans. Halpern's agent, former Capitals goalie Mike Liut, compares his client to longtime Capital Kelly Miller. Eventually, Halpern will play in the NHL, perhaps for a long time.
"The prospect of having my son play a 10-minute walk from work is very exciting," Mel Halpern said. "Some of my buddies can't imagine I've got a kid who could finally be playing 10 minutes away. But we're not there yet. Let's wait and see what happens."
Mel won't let himself get too excited. But he's finally scrapped that old Caravan, after 200,000 miles and countless lifelong memories. It's gone, but hardly forgotten.