Ron Low, the Capitals' embattled goaltender who wore No. 1 on his uniform but never quite gained a similar designation in the fan's hearts, has taken his battered equipment to Detroit.

As compensation for Low, who became a free agent under terms of an optionless contract, the Capitals received center Walt McKechnie, the Red Wings' leading scorer a year ago.

Washington also got the Wings' No. 2 amateur draft pick in 1979 and their No. 3 choice in 1978, while yielding its No. 3 selection in 1979. The agreement was hammered out yesterday, 36 hours before the teams would have been forced to compulsory arbitration. The move left the Capitals with Bernie Wolfe, the fans' favorite, and iffy veteran Roger Crozier in the nets. However, general manager Max McNab promised some company for that pair before training camp opens Sept. 19.

"As far as losing a goaltender," McNab said, "we were aware the situation might develop, and we will have an annoucement shortly. That aspect is not a concern. We would have preferred having Ron fight it out for one of the sports, but whether he got wind of something I don't know."

McKechnie, 30, becomes the Capitals' sixth center, along with Guy Charron, Gerry Meehan, Ron Lalonde, Doug Gibson and Rick Bragnalo. He collected 25 goals and 34 assists with the pitiful Wings last season, after an 82-point campaign the year before.

McKechnie, 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, has played for Minnesota, California, Boston and Detroit, and was a Team Canada member in April. He is an adept skater and undoubtedly implanted himself in McNab's mind last season when, with the Wings two men short, he kept the puck away from the Capitals for almost a full minute.

"He's a proven guy and a proven goal scorer," McNab said. "An dhe certainly seemed able to turn his big back on our guys and fend them off."

In 145 games with the Capitals, Low yielded 631 goals. He was often a courageous finger-in-the-dike figure in the team's first two seasons, facing shot after shot with little defense in front of him.

The Capitals tried to glamorize Low with "Ron-nie" exhortations on Tel-screen, but it was Wolfe - "Ber-nie" - who received the most cheers. Wolfe's flopping, sensational style proved more of an attention getter than the standup goaltending of Low.

Low sought a six-figure contract in 1975 and didn't get it. He instead signed a two-year pact at about $75,000 a year, without the usual option clause.

When Low became a free agent this year, he signed with the Red Wings, who were persuaded that no option meant no compensation.McNab, backed by hockey's Central Registry, persuaded Detroit general manager Ted Lindsay otherwise, and Lindsay reluctantly gave up his top scorer to avoid the possibility of a heavier loss from arbitration proceedings, where each team makes a suggestion and the arbitrator picks one or the other.

"You can't always control who you give up in these matters," Lindsay said. "I wish Walt the best of luck."

McNab said Low's agent presented the move as a fait accompli, giving the Capitals no opportunity to match the Wings' offer. He indicated that Washington would not have done so, although "once he agreed to restore his contract to regular form (with an option), we were prepared to discuss more money."

McKechnie, involved in a swap for the fifth time in a 10-year pro career, was a dinner guest of the Bryan Watsons in Halliburton, Ontario, where Lindy Watson answered the phone with, "McKechnie's Answering Service."

"I'm in a little bit of shock and I'm hurt," McKechnie said. "I kind of feel a little put down. You're always hurt when you get traded.

"But I'm really happy to be going to Washington. I know Max McNab and Tommy McVie real well and I know it's a first-class organization. I consider myself a team player, and I hope I can help them make the playoffs."

For Low, there is once again the prospect of tending goal for a last-place team.