Before going to sleep, Jeff Halpern would lay his workout clothes next to his bed, pack his hockey bag and sticks into the trunk of his BMW and put a bowl of cereal on the passenger seat.
It was summer 2010, and the veteran center was in search of the step he had lost after a decade in the NHL and, along the way, surgery on both knees.
Halpern went wherever, and whenever, he could rent ice time. Often that meant a pre-dawn drive to Ashburn Ice House, a 35-minute commute from his Bethesda home.
“I had it down,” said Halpern, who returned this offseason to the Washington Capitals after five years away from his hometown team. “I would wake up at 5, be in my car by 5:10, get there around 5:45 and be on the ice by 6.”
Halpern became a blur of motion on the ice, moving backward on one skate while tossing a medicine ball to a partner, jumping over three-foot high hurdles spread five feet apart and blasting down the ice at full speed as local power-skating guru Wendy Marco, stopwatch in hand, barked out times.
The wakeup call came early and the work was exhausting. But the situation Halpern faced was dire: He was a 34-year-old coming off a subpar season that had begun in Tampa Bay and ended in Los Angeles, where he recorded only two points in the season’s final 16 games. He did not have a contract for the 2010-11 season.
In fact, it was starting to look as though Halpern would have to accept a professional tryout, a humbling possibility for a player who in 2006 signed a four-year, $8 million contract with Dallas.
“You kind of start hitting the panic button,” he said.
There comes a time in every NHL veteran’s career when he realizes that he’s lost a step. For some, it happens when they get beat to a loose puck by a younger player. For Halpern, it came during a meeting with Kings Coach Terry Murray.
“Terry said, as you get on in years, skating becomes so important and that I should work on some skating stuff,” Halpern said. “I was taken aback by it.”
Halpern, a native of Potomac and the only NHL player born and bred in the Washington area, had already been considering a new offseason training regimen, one that consisted exclusively of on-ice workouts rather than the traditional running, biking and weightlifting he had done since high school. That conversation with Murray clinched his decision to make some drastic changes to his skating stride, a delicate undertaking not unlike a professional golfer or baseball player retooling his swing.
Halpern had his first practice with Marco, a mother of two from Leesburg, a few weeks after returning from Los Angeles.
“She said to me, ‘I can’t believe you’ve played in the NHL that long without somebody changing that, or mentioning your skating before,’ ” Halpern recalled.
“This was his career on the line,” Marco said.
Marco parlayed her background as a competitive figure skater into a career training hockey players. She began coaching in 1993, and 10 years later founded Cold Rush, a hockey academy that trains more than 800 students, ranging from Division I players to 4-year-old mini mites.
The first thing Marco sought to overhaul was Halpern’s balance. Next, she worked with him to make his stride more efficient and explosive — a significant challenge given that he had been skating a different way for 30 years. The average person, Marco said, must repeat a motion 50,000 before it becomes second nature.
“That’s why breaking habits at this level is so hard,” she said. “He had skated that way his whole life, his whole life. So this was a huge deal.”
Halpern was determined. He met Marco in Ashburn before sunrise and for evening sessions at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. When he got home, he practiced some of the techniques Marco had taught him while watching television. In all, he was on the ice three to four times per week.
“I’ve never seen any other pro player get up that early in the morning,” Marco said. “My college guys weren’t doing it. They were complaining about getting up at 8 a.m. But those kids are not saying that anymore. Now they’re like, ‘When is Halpern on the ice?’ ‘Oh, 6 a.m. Tuesday. I’ll be there 6 a.m. Tuesday.’ ”
In September 2010, Halpern signed a one-year contract in Montreal for $600,000 — a $1.4 million pay cut — the week before training camp opened.
From the moment he stepped onto the ice with the Canadiens, the benefit of his reconstructed stride was apparent. He was getting to pucks he might not have reached previously. He was also more agile and had more energy between shifts.
“It’s not like I had become Usain Bolt on the ice, but I had just become faster and more efficient,” Halpern said. “My friends that I grew up with told me I looked faster, looked like a different player.”
Sometimes when Halpern would check his cellphone after a game in Montreal, a text message from Marco would be waiting for him. She watched most of his games on television and attended the Canadiens’ visits to Verizon Center. When Halpern came home during the all-star break last January, he practiced with Marco.
“He kinda fell back into old habits as the season went on,” Marco said.
The result of Halpern’s work was also apparent in box scores. With the Canadiens, he had his most productive season since 2007-08, recording 11 goals and 15 assists in 72 games.
Scouts from other teams — the Capitals, in particular — took notice as well.
“We noticed last year in Montreal that he had a little more bounce in his stride, a little more pop,” Washington General Manager George McPhee said. “People used to think that you can’t improve your skating a whole lot, but you can. You’re not going to make a slow player fast, but you can get them to their physiological peak.”
After a victory last season, Halpern paid Marco the biggest compliment a hockey coach can get: He thanked her, by name, on “Hockey Night in Canada,” the NHL’s equivalent of “Monday Night Football.”
The most rewarding acknowledgement of Marco’s role in resurrecting Halpern’s career, though, came July 1. A year after Halpern had to wait all summer for a contract offer, Washington called on the first day of free agency, signing its former captain to a one-year, $825,000 contract, a 38 percent pay raise. The Capitals’ hope is that Halpern will inject some leadership into the dressing room and a spark to a fourth line that contributed little in the way of offense last season.
This summer, Halpern went back to work with Marco. But instead of revamping, the focus was on refining.
Asked if he’s faster now than he was at 25, Halpern paused to consider the question. “Yeah,” he said, “I would think so.”
“The biggest thing for me now,” he added with a smile, “is fighting the perception that you lose a step as you get older.”