Gary Smith, the man the Washington Capitals had been counting on to be their No. 1 goaltender, was sent to Hershey of the American Hockey League yesterday. It was the first minor-league assignment in 11 years for Smith, who will be 34 Feb. 4.

Smith had not played since Dec. 7, when he defeated Cleveland, 5-3, in the game that ended the Capitals' 20-game winless streak. In 17 games, he posted a 4.16 goals-against average.

Smith's demotion was on a 14-day basis, with waivers not necessary, in accordance with the new players' agreement. Bernie Wolfe spent two weeks at Hershey in December under a similar arrangement.

Smith's sudden assignment, after several weeks of uncertainty regarding the Capitals' three-goalie setup, was prompted by Buffalo's recall of goalie Bob Sauve to fill in for Gerry Desjardins, who has a shoulder injury. That left Hershey with only untried Jim Weaver in the nets.

Sending Gary down was related to the callup of Sauve," said Washington general manager Max McNab. "It has its benefits, however. All three goalies need plenty of work. We have four road games in five days in mid-january and we want everybody game sharp."

"Smitty has done everything we've asked of him, but he just wasn't stopping the puck," said coach Tom McVile, who makes the day-to-day decisions on who will tend goal. "I can't coach this hockey team with my heart, but I will say that I've been rooting for the guy.

"He's never once complained about anything. His attitude has been fantastic. I hope he can straighten things out. It may be that losing so much weight upset his coordination."

Smith, 6-foot-4, weighed as much as 245 pounds last season, when he was playing out his option amid complaints of his poor condition at Minnesota. He slimmed to 209 in training camp, a figure he said he had not approached since he was 15.

The Capitals were the only team to aoproach Smith when he became a frew agent. McVie flew to Smith's Nevada home a nd worked with him on a conditioning program. McVie was especially impressed in early September when one of his sons saw Smith running around the Bowie High School track.

"A year ago, you couldn't have gotten him to run in out of the rain," McVie quipped at the time.

Rockie Jim Bedard has handled the bulk of the Capitals' goaltending assignments since he was brought up from Hershey Dec. 2. In nine games, prior to last night's contest against Los Angeles, Bedard had a 3.50 record.