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200,000 miles not too far to chase an NHL dream
Thanks to Mel Halpern, we now know the distance from Maryland to the National Hockey League: about 200,000 miles. That's roughly eight times around the Earth, and only 38,000 miles short of the moon. That's how far Mel Halpern, mild-mannered government employee from Montgomery County, drove his 1987 Dodge Caravan so his son could play ice hockey and chase a dream.
Mel drove through snow, wind, rain and ice and on roads marked with "Moose Crossing" signs. He drove from Maryland to Massachusetts. He drove to New Jersey and upstate New York, to Ontario and Quebec, where snow drifted against his motel-room door. A few years ago, he drove to New Hampshire, back to Maryland, back to New Hampshire and back to Maryland - in one weekend.
Most of that distance was traveled with his son in the back of the van, and all of it in an effort to close a geographic and cultural gap between a boy and the sport he loved.
A surprising thing happened at the end of this long journey: The kid in the back of the van got a contract to play center for the Washington Capitals, the NHL team he grew up watching. So what we have here is a Ripkenesque local-boy-makes-good story, with a touch of Jamaican bobsled unlikeliness.
This season, Jeff Halpern's second, he had 21 goals and 21 assists for the Caps, who skate into the Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday night at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins. When he scores, the video screen on the scoreboard in MCI Center makes a glitzy fuss about Halpern's Beltway birthplace.
A kid from Maryland made it to the NHL, and to give you an idea how unusual that is, consider this: Of the 714 players who started the 2000-01 season on the league's 30 teams, more than half - 380 - were born in Canada. Another 63 are from Czechoslovakia, 55 from Russia, 40 from Sweden and 25 from Finland.
Americans in the NHL number 107. Of those, more than half are from hockey-huge states that supported the Union in the Civil War and start with M - Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and Maine.
Only one player, 24-year-old Jeff Halpern, is from Maryland, by hockey standards not so much the Deep South as the Third World. In the 83-year history of the league, only three skaters ever listed Maryland as their natal state. One is Halpern. Another is Frederick-born Jeff Brubaker, a wing who played for seven NHL teams in the 1980s. A league researcher could not name the third.
Caps officials speculate that the other two Maryland-born players did not live here long (Brubaker grew up in Michigan). There is no hockey player listed in the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame.
So Halpern might be the first Marylander to play in the NHL. He doesn't like people to fuss about it, but they do. He was inducted into the Greater Washington Jewish Sports Hall of Fame last year. Dozens of hockey bag-toting kids around the D.C. suburbs know all about him, wear replicas of his No. 11 Caps jersey and seek his autograph. Halpern's 200,000-mile journey to the NHL shows how talent, persistence, hard work, supporting parents, a couple of daring decisions and a good minivan put a boy from Potomac on professional hockey's map.
Mel and Gloria Halpern are natives of Brooklyn, N.Y. - their third date was a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden - who moved to the Washington suburbs in the 1960s. She's an educator; he's a government attorney. When their children, Jeff and Jenny, were small, they took them to NHL games in the old Capital Centre in Landover.
"I suppose I was there when I was a newborn," says Jeff Halpern, who arrived May 3, 1976, two years after the Caps entered the expanding NHL. "I have a collection of memories - racing over to games with my family, sitting up in the Cap Centre, in the upper corners, watching the games, having nachos and barbecue."
And wearing a kiddie-size Caps jersey.
Halpern was 3 when his parents got him on ice.
"My dad never played hockey, so he started skating when I did," Halpern says. "My sister started figure skating then, too."
The Halperns enrolled Jeff in a hockey clinic when he was 4, a house league when he was 5, then a Mites travel team of the Capital Beltway Hockey League when he was 6. (Among his opponents: the Stars of the Baltimore Youth Hockey Club. "Johnny Unitas' son was the goalie," Jeff says.)
At 9, Halpern tried out for the Little Caps, a team of the best players from around the Beltway. He made the cut, though he was smaller and younger than most of his teammates, who were 10 and 11. "Every time he would go to a new level, he'd do fine," Mel says.
Making the Little Caps meant Jeff would be playing more competitive hockey - with the closest away game in Philadelphia. That's about when Mel Halpern bought the Dodge Caravan - for trips to places like Buffalo and Toronto. It's also when he realized that his kid was as good as many skaters from the blade-and-stick culture of the Northeast.
The league in which the Little Caps competed, the Atlantic Hockey League, formed an all-star team for spring and summer tournaments in Canada, and coaches from New York and New Jersey - "wheelers and dealers," Mel calls them - invited Jeff north for practices and games. Mel Halpern thought nothing of driving his son to Bridgeport, Conn., for an evening practice, then returning to Maryland the same night.
"We were in Ottawa July 1, Canada Day, five years in a row, for tournaments," Mel says. "We went to a tournament in Montreal three or four years in a row. Jeff was getting exposed to the best players on the East Coast."
If not the best players in North America.
"I've looked at the programs from some of those tournaments we played in," adds Jeff, peeling off his pads after a recent Caps practice, "and it's like looking at an NHL roster."
From early fall through winter and spring and into summer, Mel Halpern logged hundreds of hours behind the wheel of the Caravan. He rigged up a small television and video cassette player so his son and a teammate could watch a movie during the long road trips.
"My dad didn't mind [the driving]; he loved hockey," Jeff says. "It was tough for my mom and my sister, though. They couldn't make all the trips, and we'd be gone almost every [winter] weekend."
Leaving little room for a family's social life.
"We were blessed with wonderful friends who understood that, with all this hockey, we weren't going to make every party," Gloria Halpern says. "We had no family here and friends were very important, but they understood when we said, `Well, Jeff has a tournament this weekend, and we're not going to be around.' They were very supportive."
The Halperns never insisted Jeff devote himself to hockey. Nor did they push him to play.
"It's what I wanted to do," he says. "On Saturday night, I'd rather be playing a game than going to a party."
Prepping his skills
In his freshman year at Churchill High School in Potomac, it was clear that, if he wanted his hockey skills to grow - if he wanted to get into a top college with a competitive hockey program - he would have to go north. Churchill, like most high schools in Maryland, did not have a hockey team.
Says Mel: "That's when we decided to do the prep school thing."
The $15,000-a-year New England prep school thing.
Matt Mulgrave, the hockey-playing son of friends, had attended St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., where he'd drawn the notice of college coaches. He ended up playing at Harvard; today, he's an investment banker. It was Mulgrave's father, Frank, who persuaded the Halperns to send Jeff to St. Paul's as well.
They did, and it hurt, and not just financially.
"The same year our daughter went to college, our son went to prep school," Mel says. "I got sick when both kids left, I really did. It took me a couple years to get over it."
The point of "the prep school thing" was to get Jeff into a good college with a hockey team.
"Did I expect [Jeff to play in the NHL]? No. Did it go through my head? Yes. I thought, `It's possible; I'm not going to give that up.' But the main objective at the time was college hockey, and that was very difficult for a kid from this area."
Mel and Gloria had heard the comments frequently: The best players - eh, don't ya know? - came out of places like Pickering, Ontario, and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan - not Potomac, Md.
But now Jeff was at a New England prep school with a good reputation for hockey. He made a lot of friends, played well - and saw his parents a lot. The Halperns regularly made the 1,020-mile round trip from Potomac to Concord in the Dodge.
"At least on one occasion," Mel says, "I drove to St. Paul's on Saturday for a game, then back to Maryland on Saturday night with Jeff. He played for the Little Caps on Sunday. I returned him to St. Paul's on Sunday night, before my return drive to Maryland on Sunday late."
By his senior year, Jeff had played a lot of hockey, but still hadn't attracted interest from NCAA Division I schools. Only smaller, Division III programs came after him.
"It looked like everything was coming to an end," he recalls. "I had kind of an empty feeling."
So he did something daring.
`A year abroad'
He deferred his admission to Bowdoin College in Maine and moved to Canada. In Stratford, Ontario, he roomed with the family that owned the Startford Cullitons (named after a local plumber) and played terrific hockey among the natives.
"It seemed kind of strange at first," Gloria Halpern says. "But not everyone knows what they want to do when they finish high school. So I came to see it as like a year abroad for Jeff. He stayed with a remarkably warm and loving family - the Pipers."
The kid from Maryland did OK. He scored 48 goals and notched 96 assists in 72 regular-season and playoff games.
The Cullitons had a championship season.
And every Ivy League school with a hockey team - Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton - noticed.
The Halperns' plan - to get Jeff some northern exposure and hope for the best - had worked.
He followed his sister to Princeton, majored in economics and played varsity hockey from 1995 through 1999. In his junior year, he had 28 goals and 25 assists in 36 games.
"That was a breakout year for me," Jeff says, "and I started getting attention."
The Caps, the team he had grown up watching and cheering, invited him to their rookie camp at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, their training facility, in Odenton. Coach Ron Wilson took a look and considered Jeff the best skater there. He invited him to practice during the summer with veteran Caps who lived in the area.
"It was my first time on ice with NHL players," Jeff says. "It definitely wasn't like a reach-out program; they needed guys to skate with. ... But it was a great experience for me. It made me focus even more, gave me a lot of confidence going into my senior year at Princeton."
And his senior year at Princeton gave him confidence that the NHL was just a phone call away.
The 1998-99 varsity recorded the most hockey wins in school history and shared the Ivy League title with Yale. Halpern was team captain and leading scorer. He was co-winner of the university's Roper Trophy, for athletic and scholastic achievement.
Sports agents started calling. About 10 of them talked to Mel about representing his son. At least 15 NHL teams were interested in Jeff.
But Jeff was interested in only one - the Caps. He signed with Washington at the end of his senior season at Princeton. He didn't bother with an agent, and didn't play the Caps against other teams - and doesn't regret that both decisions probably cost him some money.
After a hitch with the Caps' minor-league affiliate in Portland, Maine, Jeff Halpern arrived at MCI Center in fall 1999.
His first NHL goal was anticlimactic, coming in a 7-1 loss to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. But he played with the Caps all season and had an impressive playoff series last spring. Now, he's solidified a spot as the third-line center.
"When I see him on the ice now," says his mother, "I try to remember what he was like when he was little. I can still see him."
And, of course, it all seems to have flashed by in an instant.
"I'll always appreciate how much my parents did for me," says Jeff, who has developed a faint Canadian accent. "I guess I would have felt bad if my dad didn't get as much joy out of it as I did. His vacation would not be to go sightseeing in London. His would be to go to some kiddie hockey tournament in some Canadian small town."
Mel Halpern doesn't have the van anymore; he doesn't need it.
To see his son play hockey these days, all he has to do is step out of his office at the U.S. Court of Appeals, near the White House, and walk about 20 minutes to MCI Center. After the game, he takes the subway home.