200,000 miles not too far to chase an NHL dream

Hockey: The Capitals' Jeff Halpern, the league's only Marylander, recognizes the sacrifices his parents made driving him to places with stronger programs - like Canada, New England and upstate New York.

April 10, 2001|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN STAFF

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.

Early exposure

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.

Road trips

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.

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