Bernie Wolfe - the people's choice, back after an involuntary two-week sabbatical in Hershey, Pa. - will be the starting goaltender for the Washington Capitals tonight when they play the Detroit Red Wings at Capital Centre (7:35, WTOP 1500).

Fans aside, however, Wolfe may be as much on display for the general managers of other National Hockey League teams that would like to shore up their netminding. Coach Tom McVie said yesterday the Caps will not carry three goaltenders for long, so either Wolfe or Gary Smith figures to depart shortly after Christmas.

Wolfe went to Hershey to give the Caps a chance to bring up and evaluate rookie Jim Bedard, 21, their goalie of the future.

Both McVie and general manager Max McNab like what they have seen.

Bedard is 2-41 since joining the Caps Dec. 2. He has a 3.14 goals against average, and earned the first star in a 2-1 victory at Los Angeles last Saturday, brilliantly turning away 38 shots.

"He has a lot of composure, He's going to be a good NHL goalie," McNab said after the Caps tied the New York Rangers, 5-5, at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night.

"Fundamentally, he does the right things, and his temperament is just right for a big-league goaltender," McVie said yesterday before the team took a train back to Washington in time to work out for two hours at Fort Dupont. "He never seems to be in awe players he has to face. That's a very big plus."

McVie also is pleased with Bedard's receptiveness to tutoring by Rodger Crozier, who instructs Cap goalies on the fine points of their art. The same can be said of Rollie Boutin, 20, farm-hand who is the leading goalie in the International League for the Port Huron Flags. His promising development also helps make either Wolfe, 26, or Smith, 33 and a 12-year HNL veteran, expendable.

Wolfe, who has a 1-4-2 record and a 3.76 goals-against average for the Caps this year, will be making his first NHL appearance since Nov. 19. That night the breakaway-mad Buffalo Sabres rattled Wolfe's cage for seven goals and a 7-6 victory at Capital Centre.

Wolfe was sent to Hershey Dec. 2, when Bedard was promoted, and played three games in 14 days for the American Hockey League Bears. He recorded 7-2 and 4-2 victories at home, shut out at New Haven in his last outing and was recalled last weekend.

Wolfe made the trip to New York but did not play. Smith a vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's best goaltender for Vancouver in 1974-75, stayed home. He has a 2-12-3 record and 4.16 goals-against average this year with the caps.

"As quickly as Max and I can sit down and decide, we're going to cut down to two, because it's and unhealthy situation to carry three goaltender as far as I'm concerned as coach," McVie said.

"What I'm saying is, there's only going to be two goalies in Washington just as quick as we can get it done. It hasn't been decided which two or what's going to happen to the third. That's mostly up to Max McNab."

Presumably, McNab has been talking trade with NHL teams most in need of backup goaltenders, notably Vancouver, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The Sabres, especially, could use a No. 2 man because Gerry Des-jardins has not recuperated from an eye injury.

However, Wolfe cleared waivers unclaimed when the Caps sent him to Hershey, so apparently his trade value is minimal. His salary, thought to be $40,000 per year (which the Caps continued to pay in full when they demoted him), would not be a burden for the sold-out and wealthy Sabres, so the only conclusion seems to be that they are not interested in him.

Wolfe, meanwhile, has used remained pragmatic and realistic.

He does not feel he was used as a scapegoat when the Caps languished and anguished through a 42-day, 20-game winless streak that finally ended Dec. 7.

"There were several problems. They had to make some change and they decided to do it in goal," he said."That's their prerogative. It wasn't a great thing for me, but they figured it was the best move for the team.

"If I was a business man (he has a degree in finance), transferred after 20 years to another city, I'd have reason to be unhappy. But hockey people get traded every day - bigger names than Bernie Wolfe - so I have no reason to be upset. I would have more thoughts about my future in hockey if the Caps had left me in Hershey more than the 14 days."

The Red Wings have a 10-16-4 record and are third in the Norris Division. The Caps are fifth and last in that division with a 5-20-6 record.

Jim Rutherford (2-7-1, 3.94 goals-against average) probably will start in the nets for the Red Wings, who have lost their last two games. Ron Low (5-4-2, 2.91), who shared the Caps' goal-tending with Wolfe last year, may see action.