IT'S BEEN NEARLY FIVE YEARS since Yvon Labre hung up his skates as a Washington Capitals hockey player. But even retirement and a bum right knee haven't kept the former captain off the ice entirely; he just doesn't get paid to have fun skating anymore.

"I still fool around," says Labre, 36, who played professional hockey for a dozen years, the last seven seasons (334 games) with the Capitals. He now plays the occasional pickup game with "oldtimers" on Thursday evenings at the Bowie Ice Rink. But Labre is sure not to take any chances on the ice these days.

"I'm very careful. I don't get involved in any rough stuff," says Labre, whose retired No. 7 jersey now hangs in the Capital Centre arena. He keeps a close watch on his knee, too. "If I push it too hard, it gets fluid on it and it's awful. It's like a throbbing, nagging thing. When it rains, it bothers me more. Sometimes I can hurt it just by walking. It cracks. It's like cracking your knuckles."

And if he can't be on the ice as much as he'd like, he can still be near it.

Today Labre is the director of community relations for the Capitals. He spends his days traveling to schools, hockey clubs, and community groups, talking about the game, the equipment and the skills.

He spends another 40 nights during the playing season as the goodwill ambassador at the Capitals home games.

He also squeezes in time to coach the Bowie Bruins "B" team for squirts, a group of fourteen 10- season, his team won the squirts championship in the Capital Beltway League.

Labre says his young players never ask him about his professional career, but he doesn't seem to mind, "because they do listen to me more than they probably would to someone else."

And maybe that means they'll learn a little extra about a game that he's loved since his youth in Sudbury, Ontario. "It's cold and every little pond is frozen," says Labre, remembering his hometown, where most youngsters begin to skate almost as soon as they begin to walk.

"Hockey to Canadians is what baseball and football are to Americans. Kids dream of playing professional hockey. So I'm pretty close to the ice."