It was a crisp fall afternoon, and 11-year-old Daniel Harding, just out of school, was ready for some athletic combat with his buddies. They deployed around the front lawn of the Harding home in Marlton, a southern Prince George's County subdivision. They chose sides. Someone shouted, "Here we go!" And the landscape was suddenly alive with. . .

Hockey.

Yes, football and basketball fans, hockey. Played with a plastic puck and without skates or ice, but otherwise just like the real National Hockey League thing.

The tableau of slashing sticks and crisp passes on what used to be a tobacco field 15 years ago was not as out of place as it may have seemed, however.

Four of Daniel Harding's Marlton neighbors are star members of the Washington Capitals, the local professional team. For Marlton's 11-year-old set, hockey has become the Number One sport.

"I'm just playing the game he plays," Daniel Harding explained, shrugging a shoulder in the direction of the nearby rambler owned by Dennis Maruk, the Capitals' leading scorer and best-known player. "And I like it a lot better than football or anything else. I guess you could say hockey is my favorite sport now."

It would be an overstatement to say that the 4,500 residents of Marlton have been gripped by hockey fever simply because Maruk, goalie Mike Palmateer, center Guy Charron and defenseman Paul MacKinnon, all Canadians, have chosen to live there.

Indeed, more Marltonians know that they have former Washington Redskins football linebacker Chris Hanburger for a neighbor -- and Hanburger has been retired since 1978.

But since the four Capitals each purchased a $100,000-plus home in Marlton, this middle-class subdivision full of Andrews Air Force Base colonels and Census Bureau statisticians has been elevated to a level of hockey consciousness usually found only in Canada.

Schoolyard hockey is played every day in the yard of Marlton Elementary School during recess. Capitals bumper stickers are burgeoning. And according to team officials, season ticket sales in the community have gone up by 700 percent since last year.

"Take it from me," says Kathryn Craft, a schoolteacher and the across-the-street neighbor of Dennis, Joni and 16-month-old Jonathan Maruk. a"People here in Marlton are learning hockey. And they are going to the games. Before Maruk moved in, you think I had any idea what a slapshot was? g

"We see Maruk on TV and the next day he's out here mowing the lawn. He's regular people. They've been terrific neighbors, and they're terrific for the community."

To find four teammates living in one community is hardly unusual for Washington pro sports teams. Seven of the 12 Washington Bullets basketball players live in Columbia, for example, and at least 15 of the 40 Redskins live in Reston, Va.

However, not all those athletes live within a mile of each other, as the Marlton Capitals do, and few share their lives with each other or their adopted community to quite such a degree.

For example, Dennis Maruk gives autographs to everyone who asks, helps neighbors pack raked leaves into plastic bags, is often found giving pointers to Daniel Harding and his friends, and is well-known as a soft touch on Halloween.

"My mother says he's just another person, but he's not," reports 10-year-old Mary Hayes, a Maruk neighbor. "I thought he'd be stuck up like celebrities are supposed to be, but he was super-nice. It was neat."

Equally neat is the Cadillac with the MARUK license plates that the Capitals' center uses to car-pool his Marlton mates to practice and games. According to Maruk's neighbors, it is common for the Marukmobile to depart for games at the Capital Centre to adoring waves and cheers from the neighborhood.

For curly haired Mike Palmateer, having teammates so close means security for his girl friend and housemate, Lee Dantzic.

"We're on the road so much that I want to know Lee has someone to call that she knows if need be," said Palmateer, who was traded to Washington by Toronto last year and bought the Marlton home of the man for whom he was traded -- former Capital Robert Picard.

Palmateer has also cultivated a relationship that he particularly appreciates with neighbor Dan Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is a distributor for Miller beer, and Palmateer already was an enthusiastic Miller drinker before he came here. Not only has Fitzgerald started going to Capitals games, but he supplies Palmateer with Miller Lite at cut rates. "Gotta save where you can," the goalie says.

For longtime Marlton residents, the fact that professional athletes have chosen to live in their community is a hefty public-relations plus.

"I already felt that this was the nicest area in Prince George's County," said Joan Janshego, president of the Marlton Citizens' Association. "This only adds to it. People know that hockey players are pretty well paid, and like a good life, so they have to be good for Marlton."

They aren't exactly bad for real estate values, either -- their own or those of their neighbors.

According to Tom Cardaci, president of All Pro Realty, which specializes in Marlton sales, "the first player liked it here and brought the second one in. Then the second brought the third, and so on.

"It goes the same way with Andrews people or Census people -- word of mouth. The only difference is that these guys are famous."

They are also at widely varied places in their careers.

Maruk, a gregarious 25-year-old from Toronto who sports a Fu Manchu mustach, is the Capitals' "comer" -- an obvious leader who may be an all-star for years to come.

Charron, however, is clearly nearing the end of the line as a professional hockey player. A thoughtful, soft-spoken veteran of 12 seasons, four of them in Washington, Charron -- 31, married and the father of a daughter -- missed nearly 50 games last season because of a thigh injury. Then he missed several early this season when he aggravated the same injury. He has been used only occasionally since his return.

Palmateer, meanwhile, is a slashing, aggressive goalie with a personality to match. One of the few "name" players for whom the Capitals have traded, the 26-year-old Palmateer is the Capitals' resident centerfold candidate. Citing his blond hair and blue eyes, a group of female fans recently voted him Sexiest Capital. Many of his female Marlton neighbors agree.

MacKinnon has been spending most of his time convalescing. A ruddy-faced, single 22-year-old, he will wear a full cast on his leg for another month as he recuperates from a knee injury. "All I can do is watch television," MacKinnon says. "It's depressing when an athlete can't do what he's paid to do."

Why would four hockey players choose to buy houses in a rather isolated Maryland subdivision, 22 miles from the White House, 15 miles from the arena where they earn their livings and at least a mile from the nearest grocery, bar, barber shop or movie theater?

Partly because the players were steered there -- by a member of the Capitals staff who specializes in helping new members of the team get settled. cPartly because "the price was right for what we got, and we understood resale was easy if we ever need to do that," said Maruk.

Partly because of an unwritten National Hockey League rule that says players should never live across a bridge from their arena and run the risk of missing a game -- which immediately eliminated Northern Virginia. tAnd partly because Montgomery County was "sooooo expensive," according to Maruk.

But mostly, said his wife, because the landscape around Marlton reminds her of Canada.

"The trees in the fall are so much like it, and the rolling hills, too," Joni Maruk said. "When you've lived in four cities in six seasons, as we have, that makes a difference."

"I feel much more secure here than I did last year, when I lived in a condominium," added Paul MacKinnon. "This feels like the kind of real, normal home other people live in."

To Daniel Harding, however, there was nothing normal about the day he congratulated Dennis Maruk for scoring three goals in one game -- hockey's coveted and celebrated "hat trick."

"I couldn't believe it. He was taking his little boy for a walk and I was kinda afraid to go up and talk to him," Daniel Harding recalled.

"But he was as nice as he could be. I'll never forget it."

Nor will Dennis Maruk soon forget what Harding called him.

"He said everybody in the neighborhood would call me 'Mr. Capital' from now on," Maruk recalled. "I told him, 'Neighbor, that doesn't sound bad at all.'"