SOMETIME last year -- and I am not exactly sure when or how -- my 11-year-old daughter developed a passion for hockey, and for the Washington Capitals.

It was games on television and then games in person. She learned the players, the plays, the penalties. Her room filled up with Capitals paraphernalia -- first buttons, then the hat, a Capitals notebook, a pennant, a tee-shirt. Even a hockey stick. She wrote to her favorite Capitals player -- Number 33, goalie Don Beaupre -- telling him about herself and enclosing one of those wallet-size school photos.

She cheered their playoff wins over the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers. She worried when Dino Ciccarelli and then Beaupre got injured and wondered what that would do to their chances against the Boston Bruins. And, three weeks ago on her birthday that we celebrated with a cake emblazoned with "Go Caps" and tiny hockey figurines, my daughter got an authentic Capitals puck. Autographed. By Scott Stevens.

Scott Stevens, my daughter tells me, is a big deal. He is a co-captain.

But last week when I went to wake Jes-sica for school, the only thing that mattered is that Scott Stevens was one of the players who got into a limousine parked behind a Georgetown bar and ended up embroiled in allegations of a gang rape of a 17-year-old girl.

"I have bad news about the Capitals," I said. And, for much of last week, my husband and I had to disabuse our daughter of her heroes. Now, I realize that the disillusionment of a little girl is small potatoes compared to the other things at stake. Like the physical and mental well-being of a girl just six years older than my own. Like the livelihood and reputations of four men. Like the pain their wives and family are most likely feeling.

But I am distressed that my daughter -- growing up too fast to suit me anyway -- had to get even older because of the events of that May night.

And, I wonder what lessons we are teaching.

I had first secretly hoped that it was all a mistake: Don't destroy my daughter's illusions.

At one point, it looked as if I might be getting my wish and the Capitals would emerge with their images intact. Three of the players proclaimed their innocence while one refused to comment. The driver of the limousine stepped before television cameras to challenge the story told by the girl.

Jessica cheered -- she follows the news of the ongoing criminal investigations as avidly as she read the accounts of their games. She reasoned that perhaps this was all a hoax -- perpetuated, so her theory went, by a rival team.

I found myself troubled and angry by some people's definition of innocence. No one knows what the grand jury will decide but even if no criminal charges are brought, does that mean everything is all right?

Something sordid and ugly and wrong happened in the back of that car the night of May 11 and early morning of May 12. Whether by consent or through force, it appears that a group of men -- adult, grown men -- had sex with a girl who may have acted older, may have looked older but who undisputably is 17 years old. Three of the men had wives waiting at home for them. Two had new babies. Whatever their excuses or the circumstances, these men should have known better. They should have behaved better.

That needs to be acknowledged -- even at the expense of our adult illusions and prejudices.

It's bad enough that my daughter can't have her childhood heroes. Please don't let her -- or her 8-year-old brother, for that matter -- see that many think it is okay for these men to act this way because they have a measure of fame or wealth. Or because they had a winning season. Or because they were drinking. Or because men will be men.

Please don't let her pick up on the strain of anti-woman feeling that has surfaced in much of the public talk and some of the media coverage of this incident. I am unnerved that some newscasters have sought to portray this girl as just a groupie. Certainly, there are questions about the girl's lifestyle -- how did she get work as an underage cocktail waitress? -- and choice of companionship. But I am chagrined that newspapers and television stations, normally so scrupulous in not printing any information that would tend to identify a victim of a sexual crime (even one that is alleged), blithely published or broadcast the place where this young girl worked.

What's next? Her Social Security number? Her measurements?

Some of my friends wonder why I am taking on so. After all, they say, these are hockey players -- not generally known for their sensitivity or intelligence. "They are subhuman," one friend said. "What do you expect," asked another.

I didn't really know the answer to that question until this week when I stood in a soggy softball field and watched my daughter and her Silver Spring Sluggers teammates pull off a 12-to-5 win.

There was my daughter in center field catching a flyball. There she was throwing to second in a try at a double play. She got a hit every time she was at bat -- a single, a double, a triple. She scored two runs and brought two other runners home. You need to be a woman born in the '50s and raised in the '60s to appreciate how I felt watching her do those things. Things I never could do. Things that were never intended for me. When I grew up, sports simply weren't for girls. Sure, we had gym but we were forced to play that goofy field hockey or to dabble at archery. Square dancing was considered strenuous exercise for us.

So, I am in awe of my daughter, who is not afraid when a softball is headed her way, who plays soccer with abandon and who would try her hand -- if I let her -- at hockey. The real kind. Ice hockey.

I think the Washington Capitals helped to teach her a little about the beauty of sports. I am sorry that what she may remember about them is the sordid lesson they taught her about life.

Jo-Ann Armao is a Washington Post reporter.