Rod Langway is yelling at a hockey puck.

"Get in!"

The puck skitters wide of the goal, and Langway slumps in his seat in the press box high above the ice in Calgary's Olympic Saddledome. He sighs and raps his pencil hard on the desk. This is miserable. His Washington Capitals teammates are playing lousy hockey down there, and all he can do is yell and worry. Like a fan. Like some guy drinking beer in the stands.

This is the 35-year-old Langway's first glimpse of the end, of what his life might look like when his hockey-playing glory days are gone. After 10 years as the Capitals' spiritual leader and one of the best defensemen ever to play in the National Hockey League, Langway is sitting out a game. Not because he's injured, but because he's getting old. Take a night off, the coach told him, get some rest, give the younger guys a chance.

So here Langway sits with the press guys, wearing a tie and a pair of silly-looking earphones, playing guest commentator on the radio. He makes cheerful patter for the radio listeners back in Washington, but his expression is grim. As hard as it is to play this fast and violent whirl of a game, for Langway it is even harder to sit and watch.

After the game, Langway is the first player back on the team bus, which is idling in the parking lot. Teenagers gather outside the locker-room door looking for autographs. Out of sight in the back seat, Langway sits alone in the orange glow of streetlights and sips beer from a plastic cup. The Caps won tonight after four straight losses, and they did it without him, with big goals from younger and faster players.

"It's not easy," he says, as a light snow begins to fall. "But what can I do? You pass the torch."

IF HOCKEY IS KNOWN AT ALL IN WASHINGTON, IT IS DUE mainly to Rod Langway. When he arrived here in 1982 via a trade with the Montreal Canadiens, the Capitals were an eight-year-old expansion team that had never made the playoffs. Langway was 24 years old and already a star. He was immediately named the team's captain and began motivating his teammates with locker-room speeches and spectacular play on the ice.

Suddenly the Caps were fun to watch. The fans started coming to the Capital Centre to see what the excitement was all about, and thus ended the dark days of the late '70s and early '80s, when the team might have slipped away to a more hockey-hungry town.

"I kept the team in the city," says Langway, in a rare burst of braggadocio. "Making the playoffs that year secured the team. That was my career. That one year. I was 24 years old and I became a leader on a professional scale. When I look back, I know anyone in D.C. will say my name is the Capitals."

Statistics tend to back up Langway's boast. In the 1981-82 season, the Caps won only 26 games in an 80-game schedule, and sold out two home games. Since then they have averaged 42 wins, made the playoffs every season, and have sold out as many as 23 a year.

"He's been our trademark for a number of years," says Capitals General Manager David Poile. "He was one of the first players who made D.C. his {year-round} home. He knows more people in D.C. than anybody in the organization."

"He gave the team an identity, and that was a real important ingredient on and off the ice," says Coach Terry Murray. "It helped the team to have something to hang its hat on, a reason to win. Rod was the player who really rallied this team."

WHATEVER ROD LANGWAY HAS MEANT TO HOCKEY IS merely a payback for a debt he owes the game. In a sense, hockey saved his life.

In 1970, when Langway was 13, his mother, Elda, died of lung cancer. His father, Kenneth, a retired Navy man working as a guard for Brink's Inc., moved out of the family home in Randolph, Mass., a tough blue-collar community south of Boston.

Langway says his father, a tall, broad man with naked women tattooed on his arms and an eagle stretching across his chest from shoulder to shoulder, moved in with another woman. Langway doesn't know many of the details, and says he never asked his father.

"I'm sure he went through a tough time," Langway says, "but we never talked about it."

The seven Langway children, ages 10 through 19, were left to fend for themselves. "The only time he came was to drop off some money and to make sure everything was all right," Langway says. "A big day was when Dad came home every Sunday and cooked chili. More or less, that's when you could find him."

Rod was the third-oldest child. Not long after their father abandoned them, Rod's two older brothers also left and Rod became de facto head of household.

"You grew up fast," Langway says. "That's all it was. We had good neighbors who helped us. But when you're that young, you don't know what they're trying to do for you. You just went on with your business."

"You'd get yourself up for school," he says. "You did it because you wanted to, there was nothing else to do."

David Wahlgren, a guidance counselor who taught Langway accounting at Randolph High School, says Rod was "a role model for the family, and he seemed to turn out the best of all of them."

In high school, Langway was a terrible reader and speller -- a specialist once mistakenly labeled him dyslexic -- and he laughs that "the SATs ate me alive." He pushed himself to get extra tutoring before his after-school practices, but he still spent most of high school "hanging in there for dear life." He knew that if he flunked one course, he would lose his eligibility for sports, which he realized was his ticket to college.

"My goal was to get a scholarship," he says. "That's all I wanted to do. You'd watch college football on Saturday, and they'd talk about scholarships and kids getting Corvettes, and that's all I wanted . . . And I could always say I got something out of athletics."

Several times Langway was suspended for skipping school, fighting or mouthing off to teachers. But he says he never had trouble with the law. Not so for his brothers. Langway remembers one 3 a.m. phone call from the police saying that two of his brothers had been arrested in a fight after a football game. Langway, who was 15 at the time, says, "My father wasn't around, so I went up and got them."

Jack Foley, Langway's youth hockey coach, remembers that people at football and hockey games in those days tended to steer clear of the Langways when they arrived together in their old station wagon. "Some people wouldn't want to talk to the Langway family because they were from the wrong side of the tracks," Foley says. "They didn't think much of him or his family, and he wanted to make them, and athletics were the way to do it. He was determined to be the first Langway to graduate from high school. He took a lot of responsibility in his family. He was an honest, hard-working kid and he raised the younger kids."

Throughout all the trials and turmoil, Langway says, sports kept the family together. All of his brothers and his one sister would come to his games, and that was a rallying point for them. A love of athletics was one of his mother's lasting legacies.

"She didn't want anyone in the house," Langway remembers. She wanted her kids to do their homework and then go outside and play sports. "She didn't want us in front of a TV."

Rod was an all-around athlete. First it was football. Langway was a natural quarterback who, according to his coaches, was probably better at football than hockey. Then in the late 1960s, Bobby Orr hit Boston. Langway was enchanted by the young Boston Bruins star -- who went on to win the Norris Trophy for eight consecutive years as the NHL's best defenseman -- and his almost mystical skating and scoring abilities. Orr did for hockey what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did for basketball a decade later -- he energized it, made it seem younger and faster and more exciting. In New England, an entire generation of hockey players sprouted like weeds around the great Orr, and one of them was an overgrown 12-year-old who lied about his age and on one bold day tried out for a league for 13- and 14-year-olds.

Jack Foley, now the hockey coach at prestigious Thayer Academy outside Boston, was one of 10 coaches evaluating 130 players trying out that day. He says Langway appeared on the ice in a ridiculous outfit -- wearing his shin pads strapped outside his blue jeans and his elbow pads on the outside of his sweat shirt. Eight of the 10 coaches, Foley recalls, dismissed Langway as a player. Foley gave him a chance.

"He was gangly and awkward, but you could clearly tell he had a lot of athletic ability," Foley says. "Within a month of skating with us, he was clearly the best player."

ROD LANGWAY'S HOCKEY DEVELOPMENT HAPPENED not so much in expensive rinks as on the ponds around Randolph, and on the tennis courts at North Junior High School. Town firefighters would flood the courts each winter to make ice for the hockey-crazed kids. The courts were lighted and they skated there far into the night.

"Nobody told me what time to be home, so I skated until 12 o'clock at night," Langway says. "The police had to kick us off and tell us to go home. It was amazing the fun that you had as a kid. When I look back, a lot of that stuff just seems like a dream."

Paul Torney, Langway's high school hockey coach, says, "I can remember kids on the team coming to school in the morning saying, 'We saw Langway out there again last night.' People used to see him on the tennis courts, just skating and skating and skating, and then they'd go to the grocery store, come back and he'd still be out there. He probably just stayed out there until it got too cold or until his hands were raw. I don't think I ever heard the kid complain."

"He put everything he had into athletics," Torney says. "Whatever sport season it was, he dedicated himself to it. I think he had a mission. He wanted to be better than anyone. He is probably the most focused athlete I've ever seen."

Torney remembers teaching Langway in a swimming class during his sophomore year at the high school. Several of the school's varsity swimmers were in the class, and Torney says Langway was frustrated that he couldn't swim as well. "He said to me, 'What do I have to do to be as good as that?' " Torney recalls. "I showed him, and by the end of the year, he was beating the fastest guys on the swim team."

But Torney was more than a coach to Langway. He would often take Rod's dirty hockey uniforms home to wash them. "He didn't have anyplace to go, so we'd do his laundry," Torney says.

Scarlett Sasscer, Langway's fiancee, says Rod's upbringing has given him the ability to keep an even keel in rough times. She says he has a "hell of a temper," but rarely lets anything upset him for long.

"I don't think you grow up like that and not have it affect you," Sasscer says. "The main way it has affected him is that he's tough as nails. Physically, he's the toughest person I've ever seen in my life. He doesn't let anything keep him down, and that comes from his childhood. When you've been down there, you're not too anxious to get there again and you push yourself through whatever you have to go through."

"In his own way, he can be caring and sensitive," she says. "I've known him four years now, and it's taken me a lot of that time to be able to recognize it. He looks the same way after some horrible thing has happened as he does when things are going smoothly."

Now, Sasscer and the couple's newborn daughter, Hannah Scarlett, born January 2, are Langway's family, along with the three children from his previous marriage. Langway's brothers and sister are now spread far and wide. One brother still lives in the house where the family was raised. Another brother played semi-professional hockey in Canada for a while but quit to become a truck driver. Langway says he never asked him why.

"We're not that close as a family. We say hello and talk to each other, but that's about it," he says.

Two years ago, Langway's father dropped dead of a heart attack while washing his car. Langway and all but one of the six other children went to his funeral. "I really can't say much about him, because I really didn't know him," Langway says. "You forgive, you forget. That makes things easier."

Only his sister and one brother finished high school, and Langway was no student either. But he was able to parlay his sports ability into a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire in 1975. Two years later, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound kid whose family had disintegrated around him got a $30,000 signing bonus to start his professional hockey career. And he's been on the ice ever since.

"I DON'T KNOW THAT HE HAD THE greatest talent," says former UNH coach Charlie Holt, who coached Langway and dozens of other future pro hockey players. "He wasn't the fastest skater, the hardest shooter, most clever with the puck or the best checker. But whatever he had, he had something inside of him that made him go farther than any of them."

No one really knows what that something is. Friends and family speculate that Langway was driven to prove his own worth and improve the name of his wrong-side-of-the-tracks family. Others say Langway is just a gifted athlete with rare physical strength and exceptional focus of mind. Langway is most likely to shrug and say he has always just solved problems as they came along: No parents? Get yourself up for school. Poor grades? Get after-school help. No money? Get a job. Want a better life? Work harder.

Today, Langway owns three houses -- a huge country home in Fort Washington, a condo in Hilton Head, S.C., and the house in Randolph where he was raised, which he bought when his father fell behind on the mortgage payments. He drives a black Porsche and a Ford Bronco and spends his weekends in the off-season on Chesapeake Bay aboard a powerboat called Hustler. His name is on a restaurant, Langway's Sports Club in Lanham, which is owned by his close friends William and George Koutroumpis.

Hockey has given Langway a life beyond his dreams, but it has taken too. Langway has had more than 1,000 stitches from his legs to his head, four knee operations, two shoulder operations, an elbow operation and surgery to remove a large chunk of his sinuses smashed beyond repair by the more than 25 broken noses he has suffered. His nose has been pushed around on his face so many times that it is bent and dented and scarred like a squash. He has had broken fingers and toes, and he once spent 10 days in traction with a herniated disk in his back. Astoundingly, he has all his teeth. One was knocked out once, but he stuffed it quickly back into its socket, where it remains. That's pretty much the list of his injuries, Langway says, except for "concussions and stuff like that."

Langway's boxer face is the only giveaway that he's a hockey player. Icemen tend to be built like small houses, short and wide and compact under their helmets and heavy shoulder pads. But Langway is tall and lean and broad-shouldered and skates in long, graceful strides. Since 1979, he hasn't worn a helmet, a rarity among professionals, and his thinning blond hair flowing in the wind adds to his unmistakable swanlike look on the ice.

He is an old-style man's man who says he does "what guys do" off the ice: He fishes, "has a few pops with the boys" and loves to golf with a coolerful of beer on the back of the cart. He'll eagerly join his teammates, who are mostly 10 years younger than he is, at strip joints when the team's on the road. He is also polite and attentive to kids looking for autographs, patient and respectful to anyone who stops him to talk about hockey, and he's raised thousands of dollars for Washington children's charities.

For more than 10 summers -- until he decided to devote more time to his family -- Langway ran the Rod Langway Hockey School in Randolph, an inexpensive camp that catered almost exclusively to hometown kids. "He wanted to give back to the community," says Paul Torney. "And he was right there all the time. He was a Norris Trophy winner, and here he is down on his hands and knees with a 9-year-old teaching him how to skate."

IF ROD LANGWAY HAD PLAYED HIS career in a hockey town, say Montreal or Toronto or Boston, children would skate across frozen ponds, their skates ripping the ice into flying chips, screaming things like "Langway steals the puck! He goes in alone! He shoots! He SCOOORRES!"

Instead, Langway plays in Washington, where ponds rarely freeze and children grow up pretending to throw Mark Rypien passes or to sky like Michael Jordan. It is a hot-weather place where most people think of hockey as a gang of toothless Canadian goons fighting with big sticks. Although the Capitals averaged 16,590 fans at home games last season, the team and Langway are still second-shelf celebrities.

Where hockey is loved, Langway is revered. Canadian teenagers wait in the rain for his autograph and waiters call him "Mr. Langway" and strangers stop him to talk hockey. Every pimply-faced kid in Medicine Hat and Saskatoon knows Langway's name is etched on the Stanley Cup, the league championship trophy he won with the Montreal Canadiens in 1979. He was named the league's best defenseman two years in a row, in 1983 and 1984, a feat equaled by only a handful of players. Langway was the first American ever to win the trophy -- all previous winners had been Canadian. He has played in seven all-star games and he was the captain of Team USA in the 1987 Canada Cup. Only one other player -- Mike Gartner -- has played more games in a red, white and blue Capitals uniform.

Langway also suffers because hockey has a PR problem. The game has long been known for its brutal fistfights, which discouraged fan interest and hindered the league's effort to win the network TV exposure enjoyed by other big-time sports.

Fighting is only an ugly fraction of the game, though; a bigger part of it is hard-hitting body checks, for which Langway is known. They are no different from football blocks, except that they happen at much higher speeds on ice. Unfortunately for Langway, the influx of European skaters has made those speeds even higher at a time when he is slowing down. He and the game are each changing in fundamental ways, and they are not to Langway's benefit.

"The game has gotten to a level where it's so fast and there is so much pressure to win, you're going to see a lot less older players," Langway says. "It used to be common to be 35 or 36 in this league. Now I'm one of the oldest guys in the league. I hear the guys talk, saying, 'I was only 5 years old when you were in Montreal,' or, 'My Dad loves you.' "

Jack Foley puts it more succinctly: "He loves the game the way it is played now, but it's a bitch for him because he's not fast enough."

Langway has never been a prolific goal scorer or flashy skater, which is another reason he is not as well known as stars like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He has scored only 25 goals in his career with the Caps, and only one in the last three years. Decent scorers pick up 25 goals in a season. Langway's whole game is defense. It is strength and savvy and size. Langway is the battleship that opposing forwards must penetrate to reach the Capitals' goal.

It is a dance he repeats over and over: Opposing skaters build speed as they carry the puck through the center-ice zone, bearing down on Langway like snowballs gathering momentum. Langway matches their speed, skating gracefully backward in defense of his goal. His head is up, eyes alert. When they try to skate around him, he drops a massive shoulder and pounds them into the boards that encircle the ice. When they try to confuse him with fancy stick-handling, his eyes never stray from their chests and he meets them with crushing force. When the puck pops free, Langway feeds it crisply to a Capitals forward who speeds off in the other direction.

But more and more in recent years, those quick enemy forwards have been slipping past him. Younger players still respect Langway, but they are figuring out that they can beat him.

For this game in Calgary that Langway is sitting out, the captain's "C" he wears on the front of his uniform is passed to 26-year-old Kevin Hatcher. Hatcher, who joined the team as an 18-year-old, has learned much of the game from Langway. On this night, Hatcher scores two goals and is clearly the best player on the ice. The torch is passing.

"That's a little bit hard," Hatcher says of wearing Langway's C. "Roddy's taught me a lot about leadership."

Terry Murray, who has known Langway since he arrived in town, says that Langway has taught many of the younger players lessons about leadership. Langway has always been a locker-room leader, yelling and screaming at his teammates, pumping them up, pushing them to win by showing them how much it means to him.

Standing outside the team's locker room after the Calgary game, Murray says Langway's impact on younger players will continue long after he stops playing and his No. 5 jersey is retired: "I want them to look at Rod Langway's sweater hanging from the rafters and draw something from it."

In Calgary, Caps General Manager David Poile says, "This is a sad day for me, and I know it's a sad day for Rod. It's not the end, but it's a clear indication that we're starting to prepare for life without Rod on the ice."

TWO DAYS AFTER THE CALGARY GAME, David Poile and Rod Langway met to discuss Langway's future. Poile told him that the team was doing poorly, needed some shaking up, and had to rely more heavily on younger, faster players. He said Langway could expect to see only limited playing time for the rest of the year. The only other options were to retire or to seek a trade.

After the meeting, Langway took some time off. He went to Atlanta for a few days to watch a stock-car race with several friends. Then he came back to town and had surgery on his knee and shoulder. Neither operation was vital; he could have continued playing as he was. But he says the surgery allowed him to get in peak condition. And it gave him about a month to think about things. In the end, he decided to stay with the team through the current season, even if it meant only sporadic ice time.

He returned to action on January 9, and, because two other Caps defensemen were out with injuries, he got more ice time than he had expected. Still, he suggested that perhaps it was finally time to pass along the captain's C. Langway said he would like to play another season but acknowledged he was probably not part of management's plans for next year.

For Langway, the playing is the thing. Without the game, without the opportunity to make that perfect pass or that perfect defensive play, without the hollow, biting sound of his skates on the ice and the satisfaction of a good solid body check, without the game he's played for 23 years, all the autographs and interviews and applause and perks don't mean much.

Langway was once this game's future, but now he knows he is fast becoming its past. "It's not easy to retire. It's not easy for me to sit out a game when I'm not hurt," he says. "It's a new role and I've just got to adapt to it."

ON THE DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING, Rod Langway and Scarlett Sasscer are at home in the Tantallon subdivision in Fort Washington. Sasscer shuffles around the airy kitchen baking cranberry bread for Thanksgiving dinner. Langway built this house four years ago with his ex-wife, Linda. She was his high school sweetheart, and they married after his freshman year in college. They had two boys together, who are 11 and 10, and they also adopted a girl, who is now 6. They were divorced in 1990. The kids live with their mother, but Langway sees them often.

Langway helped design the house, a six-bedroom home with stone fireplaces and hardwood floors and a pool in the back overlooking parts of four holes of the PortAmerica Golf and Country Club at Tantallon. In his office, just a chip shot from the seventh green, Langway's trophy case chronicles his career: four silver bowls for being the Capitals' most valuable player, an 18-inch replica of the Stanley Cup he helped win, two replicas of the Norris Trophy, a photograph of Langway with President Reagan and Vice President Bush.

The house is for sale; Langway and Sasscer want to move closer to the Capital Centre, where he plans to work after he stops playing. He has a four-year contract with the Capitals to be an assistant coach, a public relations official or some other kind of administrator.

"Everything's changing at the same time," he says. "I'm getting a new kid in the family, I'm moving, and I'm more or less starting a new life." He is sprawled across the couch in his living room, wearing a loose sweat suit that covers bandages from the surgery on his shoulder and knee. "I'm way ahead of the game," he says. "I'm healthy, my kids are healthy and I've got friends outside of the game."

But Sasscer sees it another way. "I think it will be very tough for him. Not playing will be the toughest. That's the bottom line -- not playing. But if I know Rod, he is not going to give up what he enjoys. He's still going to be Rod, and he's going to have a good time doing it."

ON THE MORNING OF THE CALGARY game, Langway's first as a press box spectator, Murray puts the team through a sweaty workout in the empty Saddledome. Langway and his teammates skate hard for nearly 90 minutes before practice ends and players start heading to the dressing room.

Soon everyone is gone -- everyone except Langway.

At one end of the rink, maintenance men are pushing the goal off the ice and picking up the dozens of pucks that are scattered around. At the other end, Langway is silently lining up 20 pucks in front of the other goal. He straightens up, takes a deep breath. Then, one by one, he begins snapping the pucks crisply toward the net. Some hit the metal post with a loud ping, others crack loudly off the plexiglass behind the goal, still others fly into the net's sweet webbing. Then he gathers up the pucks and does it again. It is a drill 10-year-olds do endlessly: Line up the pucks, look up, shoot! High corner. Low corner. High corner. Low corner. It is the most basic of drills, and Langway stays at it like a monk in prayer.

When he is done, Langway begins skating in circles, following the painted lines in the ice. He skates forward in one direction, then the other. He skates the circle backward, in each direction. He is sweating rivers. There is only the sound of his skates, crunching into the ice under his weight, following steps they have taken so many times before.

Finally the maintenance guys gently ask him to leave so they can resurface the ice. Langway doesn't mind. He's used to this. It's just like the cops who used to throw him off the tennis courts at midnight a long, long time ago.

It's just as well. He'd skate all day if they'd let him.

Kevin Sullivan is a reporter on The Post's Metro staff.