For the first 20 years of his life, or as much of it as he can recall. Robert Picard wanted to play for the Montreal Canadians. Now Picard is tied to the Washington Capitals, for as long as the Capitals want him. He is satisfied.

"I want to be the best defenseman in the National Hockey League," Picard said today after spending 6 1/2 hours on the Hersheypark Arena ice. "Now that I'm happy with what I've got, I want to start to practice, to play the game. I made sacrifices for hockey. I think I have another 15 years to make sacrifices for it, because hockey is my life."

Under a supplementary provision to the contract Picard signed Sunday, he is likely to spend those 15 years with the Capitals. In exchange for money that team president Peter O'Malley called "minimal, in relation to his annual salary," Picard agreed to give the Capitals right of first refusal in any future contract negotiation.

"Now we have the certainty of knowing we will never face this again in five years or any other time," O'Malley said. "In the future, in all contracts Robert signs, we are entitled to the provision that if other clubs should offer a contract with additional money, we have the right to match that offer."

Picard originally signed an agreement, but not a standard player's contract, which was up for possible revision at the time, with the Capitals on June 13. But on Sept. 12 he signed with the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association. The WHA last week denied approval of the Nordique agreement, and Picard reported to camp and signed with Washington on Sunday.

So the young man who grew up listening to his father, Gilles, and uncles Noel, Roger and Marc talking hockey, who haunted the Canadiens' workouts at the Forum while playing for the Montreal Juniors, who "learned tricks" by keeping his eyes glued to his idol Guy Lapointe, will grow to manhood in Capital Centre.

Noel Picard wore No. 24 with the Canadiens and Robert Picard, 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, will carry No. 24 on his back with the Capitals. Coach Tom McVie, for one, expects that number to become a popular item with youngsters who follow the bouncing puck.

"I knew he was a good hockey player," McVie said. "But I wanted him because he's our kind of player. I was shocked when he signed with Quebec. We sent him to Ottawa after the draft for fitness tests and he was telling the other rookies, 'We've got to come to Hershey in shape.' He had Capitals stamped all over him. He has charisma and he's enthusiastic.He needs extra work now, but in another week you'll never know he was away."

Picard still owns the first pair of skates he ever wore, at age 3.

"We lived on the second floor and we had a shed in back, on the balcony," Picard said. "My mother would throw a pail of water there and let it freeze, and that's where I first put those skates on.

By age 9 he was playing hockey twice a day and he moved into bantam and midget competition a year ahead of normal age. At 15 he was playing Junior B hockey, but it was an awkward time.

"I was very tall for my age, but I had no strength," Picard recalled. "My muscles were not there. But after the muscles started developing, particularly in my legs, I became a much better hockey player."

With the Montreal Juniors, Picard was the biggest and one of the best players. In the Quebec League, fights are commonplace, so is intimidation. Opponents often took runs at Picard, hoping to start a fight, to get him off the ice at all costs. For a while they succeeded.

"I started to think about the game," Picard said. "I knew I'd help my teammates more by staying on the ice. It's been paying off."

Last year Picard was named player of the year in Quebec with 32 goals, 60 assists and 267 penalty minutes.

"He likes to fight," said father Gilles. "They'd send players after him and he'd try to stay on the ice. But often he just had to fight. He didn't lose many fights in four years in the Quebec League."

Today, as Gilles Picard watched intently, his early morning flight home fogged out, Robert dumped the camp bad guy, 6-foot-6 Archie Henderson, with a solid check. Henderson then used his stick to cross check Picard, whose legal check knocked Henderson into the net. Henderson slashed Picard reflexively, but there was no further skirmishing. Picard's father had no fear of the outcome.

"I'd like to see Robert fight (Colorado defenseman) Barry Beck," Gilles Picard said. "That would be a good fight."

The elder Picard was relieved, however, to see the contract dispute end and noted, "It's tougher on the parents than the kids. It was front page day after day in Montreal. I have to work, but I found myself just talking about Robert all the time."

Gilles heard McVie shout at his son and beamed, saying, "McVie is a tough coach and that is good. Kids need that today. You can't let them do what they want."

Unless they want to become hockey players. The Picard's first born was a daughter, Marie, but then came Robert and Rene a 13-year-old who is already 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, and "one tough hockey player," according to his father.

Robert Picard played football, lacrosse and baseball, but "they were nothing compared to hockey. Hockey is my life."

Now, at last and seemingly forever, that life is a Capital asset.