Washington Capitals center Jeff Halpern has joined the legion of locked-out NHL players who have opted to play in Europe. The 28-year-old Potomac native agreed on Friday to play for Hockey-Club Ajoie, which competes in the second tier of the Swiss League.
Halpern confirmed the agreement on his cell phone moments before departing Dulles International Airport on Friday evening. He wasn't able to comment further because his flight to Switzerland was boarding.
Halpern's agent, Mike Liut, said yesterday that the contract runs through the end of the regular season, but it permits Halpern to leave HC Ajoie in November and join another European club if he chooses. Liut also said the deal allows Halpern to return to the NHL if and when the season begins.
Today is Day 24 of the lockout, and there haven't been any bargaining sessions between the owners and players in a month.
Playing in the Swiss League "gets him back on the ice with a purpose," Liut said. "It's certainly below the level Jeff is used to playing at in the NHL, but he should be able to get something out of it, perhaps take on a more offensive role. There's no sense in him sitting around here waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Halpern re-signed with the Capitals in July, agreeing to a one-year contract worth slightly more than $1.6 million after posting a career high in points (46) last season. He won't receive any money from the Capitals during the lockout.
"It's not about the money for Jeff," Liut said. HC Ajoie "will cover his expenses."
Halpern began weighing his options early last month when a lockout seemed inevitable. He chose to stay close to home, like many NHL players during the first month of the lockout, in the hopes that a new collective bargaining agreement might be settled at the last moment. But with no end in sight to the lockout, Halpern decided "he needed to do something," Liut said.
So Halpern joined a handful of Capitals and nearly 200 NHL players who are currently playing in Europe, which is more than a quarter of the league's 700 players, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. Washington forwards Dainius Zubrus and Alexander Semin are playing for Lada Togliatti of the Russian Superleague; Josef Boumedienne, Rastislav Stana, Brian Willsie and Matt Pettinger are also playing in Europe, according to the IIHF's Web site.
Liut said Halpern's decision to sign with HC Ajoie was partly based on his desire to experience another culture.
"Jeff is looking at this as a life experience," Liut said. "It's not purely about the hockey. He's going to be within a few hours of Paris, Zurich and Frankfurt."
HC Ajoie's record is 1-7, according to the team's Web site.