The hockey Capitals paid the price for improvement with the sweat from their hard-worked bodies. Now it is time for the Capitals' fans to pay the price.

The team has raised its ticket fees for next season to $9.50, $7.50 and $4.50. This means a dollar increase on most seats, 50 cents on the lowest prices.

Coub president Peter O'Malley, "not enthusiatic about it and not apologetic either," broke the news last night at a meeting of the Washington Capitals Fan Club at the Kettering Community Center. Letters to all season-ticket holders, explaining the reasons for the increase, will be mailed in the next few days.

"In order to compete with the rest of the league," O'Malley said, "it is essential to get additional revenue sources. We have effected every cost-saving device I know about. The only remaining option is to increase ticket prices."

O'Malley cited "sustained heavy operating losses" during the club's first three years of operation. The team's fiscal matters are closely guarded, but it is believed the Capitals lost close to $3 million during the past three seasons. In addition, they paid the National Hockey League about $3 million as a franchise fee.

"We have not seen one cent of profit and none is projected over the next five years," O'Malley said. "We are prepared to subsidize what future losses may occur. It is our belief that this is a solid, healthy franchise and we've turned the corner.

The January settlement of the franchise fee was at about 50 cents on the dollar; nevertheless it meant a cash outlay of more than $1 million. As a result, the team approaches the May 11 amateur draft, as well as the negotiation of many expiring contracts, with reduced operation capital.

In past years, season tickets for the 40-game schedule sold for $340, $260 or $160. Now the cost will be $380, $300 or $180. Tickets paid in full by July 15 will be discounted 10 per cent.

The Capitals' ticket scale has always been at the bottom of the league. There were no increases after the first two seasons, despite climbing expenses and inflated player salaries, because the team played so poorly that there was no sound basis for a boost. The team's rise to respectability this past 24-42-14 season, however, removed that feeling of reluctance.

O'Malley and members of his marketing department drifted through the stands at the last five home games, sounding out fans on possible hikes in prices. While they found no enthusiasm for a rise, they also found no indignation or refusal to renew at a highter rate.

Although many player contracts are expiring this summer, the Capitals will feel little monetary relief from a reduction in force. When the team began operation, orginal general manager Milt Schmidt negotiated numerous contracts on the basis of three years plus an option year.

Most NHL contracts contain dual options, invocable by either team or player. So, even if the club fails to notify a player by Aug. 10 that it wants him to return, the player may decide by Sept. 10 to invoke the option, and the club must eighter negotiate a settlement or pay him for the upcoming season.

Larry Bolonchuk, Gord Brooks Bob Gryp, Brian Kinsella, Mike Marson, Bill Mikkelson, Paul Nicholson and Jack Patterson, none of whom is likely figure in the Caps' plans, are all blessed with an option year.

Of the players who do figure in Washington's future, seven are entering the option year. They include goalie Ron Low, defensemen Yvon Labre and Gord Smith, and wingers Hartland Monahan, Tony White, Bill Riley and Mike Iampman. Wingers Craig Patrick and Bill Collins are not covered by an option, but their excellent play certainly warrants another look for each.

"We are in discussion now with Ron (Low)," said general manager Max McNab. "His contract contains a special addendum, so negotiations are pretty immediate."

The others will wait, however, while McNab, coach tom McVie and the scouting staff watch junior playoff games, deciding how to expand those valuable No. 3 and No. 21 draft picks. Those decisions will prompt big contracts, but they also carry the hope for future improvement.

"Juniors have a way of lifting and dipping you," McNab said. "You have to get the average. You just can't get too much information on a guy. We'll get somebody in the first round. The key is No. 21. If we can foresee somebody in that spot, we'll have it licked."