BROSSARD, Que. – One of Jeff Halpern’s first acts as a Montreal Canadien was to shoot a hole-in-one at the team’s charity golf tournament.
Maybe that was an omen for the 34-year-old unrestricted free agent who had to wait until Sept. 7 to find a team, finally signing a US$600,000, one-year contract with the Canadiens. It came on the second hole Thursday at Laval-Sur-La-Lac, a soft eight-iron from 135 yards.
”I got a lot of high fives,” Halpern said Friday. ”I don’t want to get too good at golf because that means the seasons are shorter.”
The Canadiens are looking to the versatile forward who split last season between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Los Angeles Kings as a checking centre or winger who is strong in the faceoff circle.
Halpern is looking at the Canadiens as a team that reached the NHL Eastern Conference final last spring and hopes to be among the top teams again.
”I’ve said since Day 1, to continue to play in the NHL and be part of this is a dream come true,” Halpern said Friday as players took medical and fitness tests to open training camp for the 2010-11 season. ”The chance to win a Stanley Cup is No. 1 on my list.
”I’ve played 11 years and haven’t got that chance. Everything else is secondary. You dream of winning a Cup, but winning one in Montreal I think would be clearly the best thing to do in the hockey world.”
The Canadiens lost a centre when they let free agent Glen Metropolit sign in Switzerland. Many thought they would promote a young player like Lars Eller or Ben Maxwell to that spot, but general manager Pierre Gauthier reached out to Halpern.
”He’s a right-handed faceoff person, well above average on faceoffs, and he’s also a good penalty killer,” said Gauthier. ”That might mean we can use some of our offensive players (such as Tomas Plekanec) immediately after a penalty kill instead of using them to kill penalties.”
Halpern had only nine goals and 10 assists in 71 games in an admittedly sub-par 2009-10 season, and was particularly quiet with the Kings, with whom he had two assists in 16 regular-season games after a late-season trade.
His best year on attack was 2003-04 with Washington when he had 19 goals and 27 assists, but he has always been strong defensively. And he served as captain of the Capitals in 2005 and also wore the C for the United States at the 2008 world championship in Halifax and Quebec City.
The Princeton University grad, the first Washington-area product to play for the Caps, liked what he saw in his games against Montreal last season and can’t wait to start playing for them, especially with the Bell Centre filled to its 21,273-seat capacity for every game.
”It was always strong goaltending, strong defence, a well-coached team with a lot of fast forwards that buzz and wear you down,” he said. ”You felt you were playing against a team when you played Montreal and it wasn’t just a burst, it was a 60-minute battle.
”It’s a good group of guys in there. It looks like a group that gets along with one another, which in the course of a long season is able to handle things that don’t go well. You look at them as an exciting team. These guys are excited about what they did last year, but the exciting thing is they’re all talking about how they want to improve on last year.”
The Canadiens begin on-ice workouts on Saturday, but veteran defencemen Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik won’t be among them.
Markov is still recovering from a torn knee ligament suffered during the playoffs while Hamrlik twisted a knee in a pre-camp scrimmage this week.
”It’s day to day and we’ll see how I feel (on Saturday), but hopefully I’ll be able to get back in shape for the start of the season,” said Hamrlik. ”We were in a 5-on-5 scrimmage, someone pushed me a little and I felt some pain.
”It’s frustrating, but it’s better to happen now than during the season. Hopefully it’s nothing serious.”
Markov said his knee is still a little weak but gets stronger each day. He set no timetable for a return, which is expected in November.
”I’d like to come back tomorrow but it’s not possible,” he said. ”I’m happy with my rehab. I feel good.”