PU Men’s Hockey Alum Halpern Thrives in Bubble, Helping Coach Tampa Bay to Stanley Cup Title
LIGHTNING STRIKE: Jeff Halpern holds the Stanley Cup after helping to coach the Tampa Bay Lightning to the title last month as the team topped the Dallas Stars in the finals. Former Princeton University men’s hockey star Halpern ’99 started coaching in the Tampa Bay organization after a 14-year playing career in the NHL. He was promoted to the Lightning as an assistant coach for the 2018-19 season. (Photo provided by Jeff Halpern)
By Bill Alden
During his career with the Princeton University men’s hockey team in the late 1990s, Jeff Halpern got to lift a championship trophy.
High-scoring forward Halpern ’99 helped Princeton win the ECAC Hockey Championship in 1998 as the Tigers posted a 5-4 win over Clarkson in double overtime in the final at Lake Placid, N.Y.
After concluding his Tiger career a year later, Halpern went on to enjoy a 14-year run in the NHL but never experienced a championship campaign.
Turning to coaching, Halpern joined the Tampa Bay organization and was promoted to the Lightning as an assistant coach for the 2018-19 season.
Last month, Halpern got to grasp the ultimate trophy in hockey, the Stanley Cup, after helping to guide Tampa Bay to the title as the Lightning defeated the Stars in the finals in six games in a series held in the NHL bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
For Halpern, getting to experience that moment is something he will never forget.
“I had a chance to lift it up,” said Halpern. “I have told people you have watched a movie your whole life like The Godfather and, all of a sudden, you are in the movie with the actors and with the scenery. It is a very surreal feeling to think of yourself in that moment.”
Halpern’s time at Princeton was a key stop on his path to that Hollywood ending.
“The biggest thing is the friendships I made with teammates; we spent a lot of time at the rink at practice and games,” said Halpern, a 6’0, 200-pound native of Potomac, Md. who tallied 142 points on 60 goals and 82 assists in his Tiger career and is the fifth-leading scorer in program history.
“One of the biggest things for my development was that we graduated eight or nine seniors after my freshman year, so going into my sophomore year I had the chance to play in almost every situation and play a lot of minutes. That was a really good chance to not just play at a high level in college but to get a big role.”
Months after ending his college career, Halpern found himself playing in the NHL for his hometown team, the Washington Capitals.
It didn’t take him long to realize that scoring was going to be a lot harder at the pro level.
“The biggest challenge is figuring out where to get your points from,” said Halpern, who joined the Caps for the 1999-2000 season and tallied 18 goals and 11 assists in his rookie campaign.
“In college, you are used to the game and how you are being used. At the pro level, especially early, you are not in every situation so you are trying to find ways to score. I would say that my confidence was never higher than when I first started in the NHL because it was left over from college.”
Halpern relished being the first local product to skate for the franchise.
“At that time, I was the first area guy to play for the Caps,” said Halpern.
“I loved it. To be able to have my mom and dad and my sister, when she was in town, at those games was probably my best memory of being in Washington; just being able to do it in front of them and my friends as well.”
After remaining in Washington through the 2005-06 season, Halpern made an odyssey thought the NHL with stints playing for Dallas, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, the New York Rangers, Montreal, and Phoenix.
“I always wanted to be with one team, you devote so much time to one team and a certain group so it is always hard to leave that group,” said Halpern, who ended up with 373 points on 152 goals and 221 assists in 976 NHL regular season games.
“I was able to create it in Dallas and Tampa, probably more so than the next stops, just because of having more than one year. Hockey players are a pretty inviting group, it is easy to jump in and make friendships and stuff like that. I thought it was always hard to initially go there and feel like you are part of the group, trying to find a way to leave your mark on that group and establish yourself in that way.”
In addition, Halpern made his mark with the U.S. national team, competing for the program in six international tournaments from 2000-2008.
“The world championships is always at the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs so as a player you don’t want to be in the world championships because that means you don’t go far in the playoffs,” said Halpern, who earned a bronze medal at the 2004 IIHF World Championships.
“Sometimes the last thing on your mind after getting knocked out of the playoffs is to jump on a plane and go play. But as I look back, the hockey was always good and to put on the U.S. jersey, to be directly associated with not just the people from the 1980 Olympics team but all of the USA hockey and all of the country, that probably is the biggest way to serve my country. So to put that jersey on meant a lot, I was very proud to wear it.”
After his last stint in the NHL, playing for Phoenix in 2013-14, Halpern turned his focus to life after playing.
“I always wanted to get into coaching, I didn’t know how my career would end,” said Halpern.
“When I was done, I ended up taking a role as a development coach in the Tampa Bay organization for the 2015-16 season. That was good because Rob Zettler, who I was a teammate with on the Caps, was the coach of Syracuse. When I would go up there, he would let me work in as a coach and reaffirmed my ambition to become a coach.”
Heading into the 2018-19 season, Halpern was promoted to an assistant coaching role with Tampa Bay.
“Hockey-wise to make the jump to the NHL was pretty special, especially because I knew I was going to jump into a group that I knew was very talented and very established and had a lot of really good players,” said Halpern.
“Currently I coach the power play, I work with the forwards and we divide our systems up but it is a pretty collaborative group.”
Making the jump into coaching has proven to be a natural fit for Halpern.
“I love the different parts of it, probably my favorite part is working with the players one-on-one or in small groups and working on the strategy behind how to prepare for practices and the games,” said Halpern.
“I have always wanted to coach, it is different than playing. Playing had its great moments and its great experiences on one side and a completely different angle is coaching. I have enjoyed it.”
The Lightning went through some tough moments at the end of Halpern’s first campaign with the club as the top-seeded Lightning were eliminated in four games by the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“Losing in the first round and getting swept coming in as such a successful team in the regular season, it made our team, our whole staff and our whole organization take a step back and think of different ways to approach everything,” said Halpern.
“I think personnel-wise and on the management side our team changed. We got a little bigger, we got a little grittier and a little more established in some areas. As a coaching staff, we probably started focusing more on how we were playing defensively, our puck management, and not turning pucks over.”
Showing that extra grit, Tampa Bay got off to a 43-21-6 start in 2019-20 before the season was paused in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In August, the season resumed with the team initially living and playing in a bubble in Toronto, Ontario, presenting unique challenges for the Tampa Bay coaches and players.
“I think most of it on an individual level was personally for me was missing my family, not being able to escape work and kind of go into my private life,” said Halpern, who has four children with his wife Kelley.
“I think as a coach that carries over with your players, they are going through the same thing. To keep them motivated and inspired during some of those times becomes almost as important as the Xs and Os of the game.”
As the Lightning adjusted to life in the bubble, Halpern sensed the team getting closer.
“I think we had a really tight group from the trip the team had to Sweden on,” said Halpern.
“I think our group became even tighter in the bubble. They were forced to hang out with each other and find ways to pass the time, whether it was playing football or doing other stuff. I think it got them closer. Any one of them would say they would have preferred to be able to go home on a normal schedule but they did the best they could do to make things as normal as possible.”
Although Tampa Bay didn’t have standout forward Steven Stamkos at the start of the playoffs, Halpern was optimistic that the team could go on a deep playoff run.
“We had some games in the round-robin against Boston, Washington and Philly and we saw our team, even without Stamkos, take on an identity,” said Halpern.
“I think that excited us as a coaching staff and it excited the players as well to see how well we were starting to play.”
Playing well in a playoff rematch against the Blue Jackets in the first round, Tampa Bay won the series 4-1, getting a big lift in the process.
“Once we were able to win, you look back on it and that was a big confidence boost for our group,” said Halpern.
“Going into the series, it was crazy how everything matched up. Columbus would not have even been in the playoffs if the playoffs had started on March 12 and then they beat Toronto. To play Columbus was crazy. It made me think it was a bit of a jolt when we finally did beat them.”
Building on that triumph, the Lightning defeated the Boston Bruins in five games in the conference semis and then knocked out the New York Islanders in six games in the conference final.
Facing the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Finals in Edmonton, Alberta, Tampa Bay got off to a rough start, falling 4-1 in the opener.
“We just finished Game 6 against the Islanders and then we played two days later,” said Halpern.
“Dallas had been resting since their playoff series win so in that first game, we got outplayed. I don’t think we played well enough to win and it kind of stopped our momentum.”
Bouncing back from that setback, the Lightning posted three straight wins to get on the verge of the title.
“From that point on, we were able to have a really good Game 2 and an even better Game 3 and that kind of reestablished us in that way,” said Halpern.
After Tampa Bay nearly clinched the Cup in Game 5, squandering a 2-1 lead before falling in overtime, Halpern had visions of a title as the Lightning took the ice for Game 6.
“You think about going home and having the Cup on the plane, going home and sharing it with everyone,” said Halpern.
“In your head, you feel like you have done it and it is over. You go out there and you realize there is another team that you have to play. I think we got away from just going into the game and thinking about what our next play, what our next shift was. We were thinking about beyond the game so we had to re-set ourselves in our heads.”
The team did just that, jumping out to a 2-0 lead over the Stars in the second period and holding off Dallas down the stretch as neither team scored again.
“The first two periods were great and in the third period, even though we were sagging a bit, we were still real solid where we needed to be,” said Halpern.
“That part of the game took care of itself. It wasn’t until it was really late in the game where my head starts wandering about the chance of winning. You look out at the monitors by the bench and you see them cleaning off the Cup.”
Although Halpern never won the Cup as a player, getting one as a coach was satisfying in a different way.
“I always feel it is the players cup, those are the guys who battle for everything,” said Halpern, joking that he and his wife convinced their children that the reason he was gone so long from home was to win the Cup.
“One of the things you take pride in is seeing the players succeed. To see them winning and celebrating after the game and lifting the Cup, it is such a proud moment as a coach. Not that guys like Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov haven’t had a lifetime of development and coaches going into that moment but it is fun when they are your players and you worked with them all year. That was a really great moment.”
By earning the Cup, Halpern joins a select club of Princeton alums who have tasted that glory including George Parros ’03 as a player with Anaheim in 2007, Brent Flahr ’96 as a scout with Anaheim in 2007, Kevin Westgarth ’07 as a player with Los Angeles in 2012, and Chris Patrick ’98 as a Director of Player Development with Washington in 2018.
“It is neat, I have admired all of those guys,” said Halpern. “A couple of them won it as players, the rest of us not as players but in management or coaching. I think the Princeton hockey alumni have done a really good job of staying connected and supporting each other. To join that group is a special feeling for me.”