Nine-year-old David Dranitzke, carrying a helmet, skates and a hockey stick, follows his mother, carrying a Thermos of peppermint tea, to the car in pre-dawn darkness. It's Sunday, and the rest of the neighborhood, including David's father and sister, is still asleep. But David has been up for some time.

"It takes me twenty minutes to get dressed," he explains.

According to strictly enforced rules, players in the Capitol Boys Hockey Club and seven other area ice-hockey clubs for kids wear 16 pieces of equipment.

"Well, there's padded pants and high socks and this thing that holds the socks up. It goes around your waist and has little knobs that hang down . . ."

The car stops, interrupting David's ingenuous description of a garter belt, to pick up a teammate, ten-year-old Clay Wheeler. Clay walks out the door, and an arm in a bathrobe hands him his skates.

"Clay's mother drove yesterday," explains Sue Dranitzke.

Carpooling helps when practices start as early as 6:45 and games are played just about every weekend in the six-month season, sometimes as far away as Towson. Parent cooperation also enables younger players -- called Mites and Squirts -- buy used equipment from older players -- called Peewees and Bantams.

"We were lucky to be able to get most of the equipment second-hand," says says Sue, tightening first Davids laces, then Clay's, in the locker room of the Calvert Road Ice Arena in Prince George's County.

The kids, rubber guards over skate blades, hobble toward the ice while the parents exchange the grim pleasantries that go with being a hockey parent.

"Where's the old man? Sleeping in today, eh?" says a father to a mother.

"I'd offer you this coffee but I'd have to drive twenty miles to get another cup," says one of a group of parents standing huddled on the bleachers. The rink is covered by a roof but there are no walls, and the wind is whipping through.

"Go!" shouts the coach, three kids skate in a line toward the opposite goal, passing the puck back and forth to one another.

"You get some adults who love hockey and some who know kids," one father observes. "When you get both in one person, you have a good coach."

John Knapp, the Squirt parents agree, is such a coach. He puts the kids through their paces, practicing skating while controlling the puck, stopping, then skating backwards. The Squirts are joined on the ice by a younger team, the Mites, some of whom are only four years old. The combined teams skate backwards furiously and fast, back and forth between the goals until some are coming while others are going and a few end-to-end collisions occur. As one felled player gets up, pigtails stick out of her helmet. She is Nancy Bowman, nine, one of a minority of girls in the club.

"You need a rear-view mirror!" her father shouts from the bleachers. Bowman also has a son in the club and another daughter he wishes would join.

"There are some girls who are aggressive and like sports and others who like to play with dolls," he shrugs.

While Knapp has the left wings passing to the right wings, manager Bill Maloni has a new team member on the sidelines, patiently teaching him how to skate. "You don't have to know how to skate to join the team," says Maloni, and the kids learn quickly. Due to the strict rules and safety equipment, there are few injuries.

"The greatest danger is cold feet. I've never seen anyone who couldn't skate off the ice." There are no fights, because they're just having fun, Maloni says to a visitor and then shouts to the neophyte skater: "That's the way, nice and slow!"

"Last year when David started he barely knew how to skate," says Sue Dranitzke. "I used to watch his wobbly ankles and think 'oh, no!' But this has been a very good experience for him. It was his own idea. We were skating at Fort Dupont and he saw a notice on the bulletin board.

"We live near the Capital Centre and started going to professional games," says another parent. "One thing led to another."

A whistle blows and, avoiding the gate, all the kids climb off the ice over the wall in a clatter of skates against wood. Then after huddles with the coaches they're back on the ice again for a formal scrimmage between Mites and Squirts.

"David looks as if he's going to walk out of his skates," says his mother. But just after the face-off, when a Mite is propelling the puck swiftly toward the Squirt goal, David skates out of nowhere and sends it flying in the other direction.

On the way home in the car, his mother mentions that particular play and David smiles and looks pleased.

And just why does he like hockey?

"Well, it's more fun than soccer, and you learn to skate, and it's fast," he replies, grinning. But practice is over and, although it's not even 10 o'clock yet, he has the whole day to think about other things.

"Mom, can we have lunch right away?" he asks.