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This really is encouraging; something that says professional hockey is changing, and not just because the goal line has been moved closer to the end boards or because players can no longer ride piggyback on the guy with the puck.

Last night, Washington Capitals forward Jeff Halpern sat out his team's game against the Carolina Hurricanes in observance of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish days. It is believed to be the first time a National Hockey League captain, someone who is supposed to typify the heart of his teammates and the grit of the game, had taken off his jersey and said: "Not tonight. It's against my religion."

And why is that encouraging? Because no one has publicly chastised Halpern for his decision. No one questioned his sincerity as a person or his toughness as a player. No one said: "Hockey's a religion. Where's his commitment to that?"

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There may be those who think that way, but they won't say it. They know times and attitudes have changed. Even the most narrow-minded have to realize this is not the NHL of the 1950s or of Harold Ballard's bitter day, and that's a good thing.

As the stone-aged owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ballard made it his business to badmouth everyone and everything -- Russians, the World Hockey Association, female journalists, children and Laurie Boschman, the Leafs' first-round draft pick, who later announced he'd become a born-again Christian.

Ballard griped that his prized prospect went soft as soon as he rediscovered God. It didn't matter that Boschman was diagnosed with mononucleosis and didn't have the energy to play hard. The kid was too busy turning the other cheek to run somebody into the boards, Ballard said, so a trade was made.

"If you watched Laurie's career, you know he was anything but soft," said Mark Osborne, another former Maple Leaf who expressed his faith when asked and was quickly criticized. "If you were a guy who read the Bible, you'd hear about that on the ice: 'Hit him with your Bible.' You'd hear that from opposing players."

Stu Grimson was known far and wide as a gentle soul who put on a pair of skates and was instantly transformed into the Grim Reaper. At 6 foot 5 and 230 pounds, Grimson was big and mean enough to make referees hand over their lunch money. He felt it was his responsibility to give his all. One coach, Andy Murray, now of the Los Angeles Kings, was so perplexed by Grimson's good guy-bad guy persona, he asked how it could be justified.

"I said: 'Stu, you're such a moral, good-living, religious person. And you're such a mean and nasty guy on the ice,' " Murray recalled. "He said, 'In the good book, it's written that it's better to give than receive.' "

Murray has coached in the NHL for more than a decade and witnessed how the NHL has adjusted its thinking on religion. Many teams, including the Kings, now hold a weekly chapel session. Most teams have Christian athletes. A few years ago, Murray was quick to agree when defenceman Mathieu Schneider came to him and said that, being Jewish, he couldn't play on Yom Kippur.

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"Life is all about priorities and keeping things in perspective," Murray said. "If a player had a major family situation or a religious situation, to me that always takes priority."

Major-league baseball has embraced those athletes who said they couldn't play on Yom Kippur. Hank Greenberg missed a Detroit Tigers game in the thick of the 1934 pennant race, while Sandy Koufax declined to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series. Their decisions enhanced their reputations. It gave them a measure of character to go along with their formidable skills.

Halpern's decision won't give him Koufax-like status -- the Capitals' captain is a bit lacking in the formidable skills department -- but it has impressed his teammates and head coach Glen Hanlon, who told The Washington Post, "It's just another example of how dedicated a person Halpy is, in every aspect of his life."

Again, the fact no one wanted to debate that speaks more to how the NHL has evolved than any 4-on-4 overtime. In today's NHL, you can live your faith without being ridiculed as a Bible-toting pansy, and that's heartening. A skate in the right direction.

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