The pot-bellied stove was six feet tall and they fed it coal and wood until it glowed red. It was below zero outside and the little kids in town below zero outside and the little kids in town came to the falling-down warehouse to play hockey on an old ice rink. For a goal, they'd use somebody's cap or they'd pull a bench onto the ice and aim between its legs. "The first think I remember about hockey is spitting on tht stove and hearing it go sssszzzzz," Tom McVie said.He was 6 years old.

That was in Trail, British Columbia, a little town in western Canada. A mining company's amateur hockey team won the world championship for Trial in 1937, when Thomas Ballantyne McVie, the son of a Scottish immigrant, was a toddler. It was a hockey town and boys grew up on the warehouse ice in wintertime and on the dusty streets in 100-degree summers, punishing tennis balls with hockey sticks. "I was not a strange breed for doing that," McVie said. "Everybody was crazy for hockey."

McVie today is the coach of the Washington Capitals and for anyone foolish enough to think that his rise to a coaching job in the National Hockey League is the legitimate end product of a lifetime on the ice - he left home at 16 to play junior hockey and never went back - McVie says to those illy folks. "Of all the people I know in hockey, of all the people I met in 20 years playing professionally, I'd be the last one I'd ever think would be a coach."

McVie sat in his office just off the ice at Capitol Center. Loosening up for last night's game against the Chicago Black Hawks, the Caps had worked out for a half hour in the morning. As always, McVie skated with his men, this day challenging his leading scorer. Guy Charron, to a race three times across the ice. A dead heat. Then McVie sat at his desk, still wearing skates, and tried to explain why he says, "I still can't believe I'm here."

He'd been a very good player, a left-winger good enough to score 400 goals and make league all-star teams. That was before the NHL expanded, before the World Hockey Association existed. On six NHL teams, there were jobs for 18 left-wingers. Today, 28 major league teams carry 112 left-wingers. You could be very good in Tom McVie's playing days and not be one of the 18 lucky ones. So McVie played in Prince Albert and Medicine Hat and Portland and Toledo. And, he said, he built a reputation.

"Until six years ago, I was the complete flake," he said yesterday. "I lived every day like it was going to be the last one of my life. And I used to lay on the bed in a cold sweat, knowing my day was coming, knowing I was 36 and getting older and getting worse and somebody was going to come and tell me they'd waived me or something. I was happy-go-lucky. A crazy reputation. And I didn't know anything but hockey. What could I do to take care of my family if I wasn't playing hockey? Nothing."

So McVie decided he'd be a coach.

Tom McVie? The flake as coach?

"Well, it took five years of toal dedication almost like a priest, to let anyone know I was serious about it," he said.

Somehwo he hooked on as a player-coach at Johnstown, Pa.

Paul Newman, the movie star, made a film in Johnstown a couple years ago. It was called "Slapshot," and Tom McVie says, "That think looks like my life story. Newman was a left-winger: I was a left-winger. He was a player-coach: I was a player-coach. His wife left him because of the hockey: my wife said she couldn't take Johnstown anymoe and she went to our home in Oregon. He got a better job in the end: and so did I."

The better job was at dayton, Ohio, seldom recognized as one fo the world's hockey centers. McVie couldn't have cared less about that.Without hockey, he might have been back tarring roofs, as he once did, or working a pick and shovel in construction, as he once did. Who knows what you do when you've left home at 16 to chase pucks?

At Johnstown - this was only six years ago - McVie says he told an old buddy, John Ferguson, that he wanted a job somewhere. Ferguson, then ot of hockey but now coach of the New York Rangers, passed the word to Harry Sinden, who runs the Boston Bruins.

"Boston was putting a team into dayton and I wanted the job. Harry knew all the crazy things I'd done, but I told him I'd quit drinking. I'd quit living it up. So I got the job. And I've been working so hard since not to let John Ferguson and Harry Sinden down. I'm really grateful."

Mcvie produced a championship team in his 2 1/2 seasons at Dayton and became the Caps' coach in mid-season of 1975-76. It didn't take him long to tell the Caps what was expected of them.

"There were a lot of problems when I first came here. This was a time when the players had everything their way. A coach used to work for the players. Now the players are working for me. I am definitely the head man."

The problems, McVie said, were in "discipline, punctuality, overweight athletes and practice time I looked around for two days, I didn't want to move too quickly. I just watched the happenings. Guys were rolling in 20 minutes late. And the weight chart, the players seemed to weigh themselves and no one seemed to care what they weighed."

A guy doesn't play hockey in Medicine Hat and Seattle and Toledo for all his life without learning something. One of the things McVie learned was that some hockey players bribe the trainer to write down a certain weight no matter what the scales show.

"So I weigh the players. Me, personally, Tom McVie. And I tell them that if they want to try anything don't - because I'm so far ahead of them. Whatever they're thinking. Whatever they're thinking about doing. I've done more - and wors I can head things off at the pass."

McVie laughed out loud. He's having fun these days. Because he demands so much, because he teaches so well, the Caps improved 30 points in the standings last season. The NHL broadcasters named him runnerup in their Coach of the Year voting. His ambition is to work the Caps to a level that they "have a chance every year to win the Stanley Cup."

For anyone foolish enough to think McVie doesn't demand a lot from the Caps, there's a poster in the coach's office. It show's five cavemen with clubs, marching in anger. Above them is the caption: "OK, boys, when you get to the front of the net, don't bunch up or that McVie will go animal."

Yeah, I get excited sometimes," the coach said with a smile. CAPTION:

Picture, Jim McMillian ogles basket in Portland as Dave Twendzik of Trail Blazers guards Knick ball-handler. NBA roundup. AP