Halpern’s hockey journey marked by tragedy, triumph
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jeff Halpern was playing for TPS Tuurku in Finland when the 2013-2014 NHL season began. He wasn’t there for money; he was there to prolong a once-unlikely dream.
"I didn’t ask for or want any money in Finland. I just wanted a chance to go get some game action," said Halpern, who hadn’t received any NHL offers after playing out his contract in Montreal last season. "A good friend of mine, (former NHL player) Brian Willsie, had a contract with Tuurku, but for tax reasons he couldn’t play for the first month, so there was a three-week period where I could go over there and play to try and stay in shape."
Five games into the NHL season, the Coyotes signed Halpern to a one-year, two-way contract to fill their gaping hole at fourth-line center, improve their face-off percentage and help the penalty-killing unit recover from the loss of free agent Boyd Gordon. The 37-year-old "Southerner" got another chance to continue the only profession he ever truly wanted.
"Some guys have to work a little harder to get where they want to go in life," said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, an 11-year NHL grinder himself. "It’s a testament to Halpy’s ethic that’s he’s still around after all this time."
Halpern was born in 1976 and grew up in a house situated between Potomac and Rockville, Md. From a hockey perspective, he might as well have been born in Biloxi, Miss.
"Washington D.C. was considered the South, hockey-wise," said Halpern’s dad, Melvin, who chose the game because it was the only one available to his energetic 3-year-old son, who clearly needed an athletic outlet. "There weren’t too many kids from the DC area that made it to Division I colleges back then, let alone the NHL."
To overcome those hurdles and the perceptions of DC-area hockey, Jeff started playing for a travel team and eventually joined a league that required travel up the eastern seaboard. On some weekdays, Melvin would pick Jeff up after school, drive almost 300 miles to Bridgeport, Conn., for an evening practice then turn around and head back home.
"We had a mini-van, and there were always a couple extra kids in there on our way to a game or practice," Jeff said. "My dad figured out a way to hook up a small TV and VCR on a board between the arm rests so we could watch movies and not drive him crazy. I think he knows Rambo, Predator and Rocky II by heart. He can recite all the dialogue."
Halpern was a gifted youth player and continued his career at prep school in Concord, N.H. But he lacked size — Melvin said he was 5-feet-2, 120 pounds his sophomore year — so the only colleges pursuing him were Division III schools.
Instead of going that route, Halpern played a year of Junior B hockey in Stratford, Ontario, where he filled out, grew to about 6-feet tall and earned the attention of Princeton University, where he led the Tigers to an ECAC title and an NCAA quarterfinal appearance with 28 goals and 53 points in 36 games his junior year.
Although Halpern wasn’t drafted by an NHL club, his strong two-way play at Princeton caught the attention of several teams. The Capitals had already invited him to skate with their prospects that summer, and when GM George McPhee offered a contract, it was a no-brainer to play for the hometown team.
Because of his versatility, Halpern has filled a number of roles in his 14-year career with seven NHL clubs. He had a career-high 21 goals for the Caps in 2000-01 and a career-high in points (44) in 2005-06. He played for Tippett in Dallas for nearly two seasons, but when the Stars had a chance to land Brad Richards, they dealt Halpern, Jussi Jokinen, a 2009 fourth-round draft pick and current Coyotes goalie Mike Smith for Richards and Johan Holmqvist.
"It’s never easy when you trade a guy, but it’s especially hard when you deal a guy like that," Tippett said. "I have great respect for him as a player. He’s a really good teammate, but more than that, he’s just a really good person, the kind of guy you want on your team."
Halpern credits his tightly knit family (he also has a sister, Jennifer) for making him who he is. Halpern is Jewish, a rarity in NHL circles and American professional sports. He does not practice or play on Yom Kippur to honor those family members and friends for whom the Day of Atonement holds great significance. In 2005, that meant missing a regular-season game, but it held far more significance that year because Halpern lost his mother in fiery automobile accident eight months earlier.
According to a report in the Washington Post, Gloria Halpern, Jeff’s aunt Debbie, his uncle Alan and a fourth passenger were struck by a fuel tanker in Davie, Fla. The driver of the tanker, which was carrying 9,000 gallons of fuel, lost control of the truck, and the 18-wheeler flipped over and landed on top of the car then burst into flames, exploding several times. All four passengers were killed.
The tragedy occurred during the 2005 NHL lockout, so Halpern was playing in Switzerland.
I love my career, and there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about how lucky I am to do this.
"It was hard to connect with him because he was overseas, so I ended up having to leave the worst news of our lives in a message," Melvin said. "It was really difficult to handle, and it still is."
Halpern prefers not to discuss the tragedy but is quick to detail all the attributes he gained from his mom.
"She was a very caring, thoughtful person, so I’ve tried to live up to that standard," he said. "I take a lot of pride in my work ethic, and I think it helped me get to this point, not just athletically and academically but in life in general.
"She worked countless hours — she was a teacher and an accountant, and it always seemed like she was coming home from work tired — so to see her doing that all the time, it just translated to me through osmosis or whatever. I feel like I developed that work ethic."
Halpern also credits Gloria for a good dose of his competitiveness.
"She wasn’t a competitive person on the surface, but as soon as there was a board game, you could see the fire come out of her," Halpern said, smiling. "There’s a story from my Princeton days where a bunch of players’ parents were playing a game where you had to give clues to help people figure out the answer.
"The answer was a bra, so she lifted up her shirt to show the bra, which, if you knew her, was completely out of character. I guess in order to win the game she changed her morals for a night."
Gloria’s death brought a close family even closer together. When Jeff married former Washington Redskins cheerleader Kelley Cornwell in 2011, his father was his best man. And when Jeff thinks about a his-post hockey career, he thinks as much about how it will impact his dad as he does about how it will impact him.
"My dad’s retired now, so I don’t know what he’s going to do when I finish playing. There’s a little bit of pressure to keep this going and give his retirement some more meaning," Halpern said, laughing. "He’s probably always been my best friend, and it’s been neat to share my life and career with him."
Halpern’s contract only runs through this season, and given where he was at the start of the year, he understands full well that this could be it for his NHL days.
"I love my career, and there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about how lucky I am to do this," he said. "That biological clock of training in the summer and playing through the season has always seemed like a natural and purposeful thing. I don’t know how I’m going to break that cycle."