Defenseman Yvon Labre, the man voted the most popular Capital every year of the hockey team's existence, is carrying a double load of pain these days. He is lying in bed at Arlington Hospital following Tuesday surgery on his right knee, and both the knee and the Capitals' current plight are making his life unpleasant.

"The pain is just unbelievalbe," Labre said over the telephone today. "They keep giving me shots every four or five hours, but I just have to bear it the rest of the time. I wish I could get up and move around. My head says get up and walk, and my leg says no way."

Labre tried to listen to Tuesday night's game against Los Angeles on the radio, but discovered it had been preempted for election results. It was just as well, since the Capitals played a game reminiscent of Year One in losing, 5-1.

Labre is the only player who has been with the Capitals since their beginning in 1974. He became team captain Jan. 23, 1976, the night the Capitals beat the New York Rangers to end a 25-game winless streak, and was a key figure in the team's rise to respectability. Now, while he is unable to provide either leadership or playing help, the Capitals seems to be suffering a relapse.

"I can't understand it," Labre said. "We'd better start winning a few. We've got better personnel this year, and yet we're not doing anything. That bothers me as much as this knee."

Center Gerry Meehan has assumed the captain's duties and Labre wished him well. He also promised to be back in four to six weeks.

"I'm not a saviour or anything like that.. but I hope I can help out," Labre said.

Labre suffered both cartilage and ligament damage in the knee when he was checked early in the first period at Cleveland Oct. 15. He put on a brace and continued to play, but it should have been obvious something was seriously wrong.

"I took a guy out in the corner and my leg was at an angle," Labre recalled. "He hit me from the side and the knee went, I took three days off after that and I didn't feel bad. But then I played against Montreal and it felt like I was taking a full stride with my left leg and a half stride with my right leg. It really tightened up.

"I figured I'd had that kind of pain before and it would go away. So I kept on playing.I figured practice and work on the weights would build it up. But nobody hits you in practice. In Denver, I played a couple of shifts and one guy went against my leg and it just buckled. The next day, I knew there was no way."

Despite the pain in this leg, Labre is "happy it's over with: believe me I am." Now if the Capitals could just ease that other pain.