His father drove him to the NHL. Ride along with the Lightning’s sharpest mind

They don't make many hockey players where Jeff Halpern comes from. But the Lightning assistant coach reached the NHL with the help of a father whose drive matched his.
Assistant coach Jeff Halpern, center, oversees the Tampa Bay  Lightning's power play. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Assistant coach Jeff Halpern, center, oversees the Tampa Bay Lightning's power play. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published January 4
Updated January 5

TAMPA — The Lightning coach who sees details that his colleagues can't did not come from a traditional hockey-rich community.

He didn't grow up in Canada like head coach Jon Cooper and goalie coach Frantz Jean. He didn't grow up in Minnesota like assistant coach Todd Richards. He didn't grow up in New York like assistant Derek Lalonde.

Jeff Halpern grew up in Maryland, which might as well have been the Deep South of hockey when he started to play.

Yet, Halpern, 42, has a hockey mind that others don't.

"His IQ is higher than the rest of us together," Cooper said of the Princeton alum. "If you can see beyond X's and O's, 'Halpy' sees it. He just brings a different insight, which has been eye-opening for myself. He really can think things through, and the details he sees is outstanding."

This stems from the former center's 14-year NHL career, something unheard of for someone from Maryland or Washington, D.C. Only six people have played in the NHL from that area, according to hockey-reference.com.

Jeff Halpern, 12, poses on the ice while wearing his Little Capitals uniform. Playing for this team gave him the opportunity to travel to different states. [Courtesy of the Halpern family]
Jeff Halpern at age 12 in his Little Capitals uniform [Courtesy of the Halpern family]
 Halpern’s life in hockey isn’t by chance. It took a journey in a burgundy 1987 Dodge Caravan with a game-for-it-all dad driving thousands of miles, all so that Halpern could play hockey against some of the best.

They drove 13,000 to 15,000 miles per year. To New York, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts and wherever else they needed to go.

"I could name you probably any pizza place or White Castle anywhere on (Interstate) 95 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike," Halpern said. "Probably the biggest memories from my childhood are those trips with my dad."

They started their adventures when Halpern was 9. He was not able to play anything above A-level youth hockey close to home, so his parents knew they would need to travel if he wanted exposure and a chance to play at higher levels.

So Halpern joined the Little Capitals, a team that drew from Washington, Maryland, Virginia and sometimes southern Pennsylvania, to face some of the best youth teams the country could offer.

Jeff Halpern, 4, poses on the ice while taking part in instructional hockey in Maryland during the 1980-81 season. [Photo courtesy of the Halpern family]
Jeff Halpern, 4, poses on the ice while taking part in instructional hockey in Maryland during the 1980-81 season. [Photo courtesy of the Halpern family]

Halpern rode in back while his father, Melvin, drove. A friend of Melvin's who had a son who also played on the Little Capitals hooked up a portable 12-inch television and video player that sat on the front armrests.

"It kept them quiet and from getting bored," Melvin said. "It made it much more doable."

They never flew. Too expensive. Sometimes they carpooled and shared hotel rooms. Other times they stayed with relatives in New York. Melvin and his wife, Gloria, grew up in Brooklyn.

"I met pretty much all of my relatives from hockey trips," Jeff said.

•••

Occasionally the Halperns rented cars on weekends to avoid too much wear and tear on the minivan that they had bought new. When Melvin once went to rent a car, the company offered a convertible. Melvin ran it by Jeff, who gave the okay, neither realizing what that would mean on the road to Boston.

"The problem with the convertible, we found out, when you ride, the top is up, not down," Melvin said. "It was noisy as heck, so it was a terrible ride. The wind was blowing the whole eight hours each way."

They found ways to lessen the financial burden, but they also had to manage an emotional toll. The hours on the road meant hours apart from Gloria and Jeff's sister, Jennifer.

"But my daughter and wife were very supportive of it," Melvin said.

That support made it possible for him to get the exposure and experience needed to keep playing. Jeff ended up playing for St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., his sophomore through senior years of high school. He didn't get any Division I offers out of prep school, but after a year playing juniors in Ontario with the Stratford Cullitons, he committed to Princeton.

His parents seldom missed games. Jeff said that at the time, he probably didn't appreciate the lengths to which they went for him.

Except maybe for one trip back from Connecticut.

•••

They were returning from a practice when the driver's side window broke. For the next five hours, Jeff sat in the back seat wrapped in blankets watching his dad drive with the winter wind invading from his left.

"As crazy as (Melvin) was, and willing as he was to drive, that was always one of the big ones … watching him drive with, like, his jacket tied around his head just to try and stay warm," Jeff said.

But without a dad willing to drive, Jeff probably would not have played college hockey. He probably would not have reached the NHL, much less played 14 years in it with the Capitals, Lightning and five other teams.

Without a dad willing to drive with a jacket tied around his head without a driver's side window, Jeff probably would not have become a Lightning assistant coach who runs the NHL's top power play.

Yet here's Halpern, bringing new insight and hockey intelligence to a team poised to contend for the Stanley Cup.

Not bad for a kid from Maryland.

Contact Nick Kelly at [email protected] Follow @_NickKelly.

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