Although it may feel as if Alex Ovechkin has been captain of the Capitals for his entire career, in reality, he has not been. During Ovi’s rookie season, the team’s leader was was Potomac, Maryland-native Jeff Halpern.
Halpern recently spoke to ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski for a feature on Ovechkin’s chase of Wayne Gretzky’s goals records and shared several amusing tales about the Great Eight’s first soiree into the National Hockey League.
“He was wearing cutoff jeans. His shirt was way too tight,” Halpern said to Wyshynski, describing the first time he ever met Ovi. “I remember there was a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers when he scored against them and then winked at their bench as he skated by. And we’re all thinking, ‘This kid is going to get us beat up.'”
It wouldn’t take long for Ovi to make another “first impression” on Halpern as the two were slated to skate on the same line in Ovechkin’s debut game.
“He told us that on the power play, if he’s in the middle, just get him the puck,” Halpern said. “He’s like, in broken English, ‘I’m a big guy. I can shake some people off.'”
Back then, there were huge, physical defensemen in the NHL like Dion Phaneuf, Derian Hatcher, and Sheldon Souray that would punish forwards for playing like that.
“Ovi was big, but he wasn’t one of those guys,” Halpern said. “It wasn’t until that first game against Columbus that we realized how tough he was. On his first shift, he ran through a defender and, like, broke the glass. He was such a force when he started moving. He was trying to hurt people, with and without the puck.”
The hit that broke the stanchion off the pane of glass was on Blue Jackets defenseman Radoslav Suchy and was just the first salvo in a night that saw Ovechkin score twice in a 3-2 win.
Ovechkin’s supreme offensive talent was providing dividends to Halpern’s point totals as the center had 16 points through the first 23 games of the 2005-06 season, but his rambunctious nature was proving a little difficult to handle on ice.
“I can’t play with this guy. He’s all over the ice. I don’t know where he is, and it’s not the way I play,” Halpern recalled telling then Capitals head coach Glen Hanlon. “The next game Chris Clark was on that line with Ovechkin, while I was playing with Brian Willsie and Matt Pettinger. Two very good players and exceptional people who are not Alex Ovechkin. So that was a mistake.”
Ovechkin would go on to score 52 times his rookie season, record 106 overall points in 81 games, and win the Calder Memorial Trophy for rookie of the year over Sidney Crosby. Halpern would leave the Caps in free agency that offseason, signing a deal with the Dallas Stars. He would never approach the 44 points he scored that year again.
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) October 6, 2021
Headline photo: Amanda Bowen/RMNB
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