For his first five seasons in the NHL, the schedule spared Jeff Halpern from having to make a decision. This year, with his team slated to face the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., tonight after Yom Kippur begins at sundown, the Washington Capitals' first-year captain had a choice to make.
"I don't think there's any question what I should do," said Halpern, who will be at his family's home in Potomac when his teammates take the ice. Yom Kippur is the Jewish faith's holiest day.
"I wish we didn't have a game. But it's too important to me, my family and the community that has supported me, not to participate. I'm not the most religious person in the world, but this is something my family has always observed."
An intensely private person who initially was uncomfortable discussing his decision, Halpern has missed practices and an exhibition game as a member of the Capitals because of Yom Kippur. Other professional athletes, including NHL players such as Mathieu Schneider of the Detroit Red Wings, have also sat out in observance of the holy day.
"It was the first thing I checked when the schedule came out," said Halpern, the only Montgomery County native to play in the NHL.
Halpern plans to practice with injured teammates Stephen Peat and Ivan Majesky at Piney Orchard this morning and be in the lineup when the Capitals face the New York Islanders at MCI Center tomorrow night.
"I'm sure on Thursday I'll be thinking about things," Halpern said. "But at the same time, I'll be thinking about Thursday's game, too. Hockey is a big part of my life. It's brought people in my family a lot of joy."
Halpern's decision to skip the Carolina game was overwhelmingly supported by his teammates and management.
"It's a personal decision that we understand and respect," General Manager George McPhee said. "We're living in a more enlightened age, especially in sports, and you have to be sensitive to these things and understand that certain things in life supersede sport."
Before informing the coaching staff and his teammates, Halpern first sought the opinion of a respected veteran. Defenseman Brendan Witt, an assistant captain, didn't hesitate when offering his advice.
"I told him he should take it off," Witt said. "He was worried about how guys take it. I told him it's just a hockey game. I think it would be worse if he didn't take it."
Halpern's absence will leave the team without its leader, and minus its second-leading scorer. Halpern's four assists rank only behind Alex Ovechkin's five points (three goals, two assists).
Coach Glen Hanlon said he will revise the team's forward lines, but had not completed the combinations as of yesterday's practice. Hanlon added he will not give the captain's "C" to another player for the game.
"Jeff expressed his wishes to do this, which was not a surprise because he's done it in the past," Hanlon said. "It's just this year it fell on a game day.
"I wouldn't expect anything less from Jeff. We're totally behind his decision. It's just another example of how dedicated a person Halpy is, in every aspect of his life. That's why we love him here, and we're so happy he's our captain."
Capitals Notes: Rookie defenseman Mike Green, who impressed coaches and teammates with his poise during training camp, was recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League yesterday and could be in the lineup against the Hurricanes. . . .
Peat was sporting a cast on his right hand yesterday and is out for the foreseeable future. Peat fought twice during the preseason, but it's unclear when he suffered the injury. The team officially lists him as having an "upper body injury."
Jeff Halpern, above, sought veteran Brendan Witt's counsel before telling others he would miss tonight's game. "I told him it's just a hockey game," Witt said.