When he realized that his body was destined to stretch no farther than 5 feet 8 inches, Dennis Maruk decided to think big, instead. So the Washington Capitals' center with the Fu Manchu has depended on his accomplishments to quiet people who think small.

Maruk's teammates call him "Pee Wee," a label he can accept with a smile, because his 33 points are high on the team.

Maruk's size is no deterrent to anger, so his response to a low stick from Pittsburgh's 6-5 Peter Mahovlich was a flurry of fists. A fan with small thoughts yelled, "Punch him in the knee, Maruk." He grinned; at least it was a variation of the usual greeting in foreign rinks: "Get up off your knees, Maruk."

Maruk's lowest moment came during the 1975 amateur draft, an occasion he had eagerly awaited, having smashed Marcel Dionne's Ontario scoring record with 145 points in his final season of junior hockey.

Maruk was Ontario's MVP, as well, but the first round passed without a mention. Washington selected another Ontario center named Alex Forsyth, whose point total had bottomed out at 58 but who stood 6-2. Finally, as the 21st overall selection, the California Seals opted for Maruk.

"I was disappointed and upset," Maruk recalled. "I did get 66 goals. But all I heard was 5-8, 5-8, 5-8. Too small, too small, too small."

During the next three seasons, Maruk answered his critics with 94 goals, exactly 94 more than Forsyth accumulated in the NHL. He has passed the 100 mark since becoming a Capital in a trade for, at last, a first-round pick, in October.

Althought disturbed by big mouths continually trying to put him down, Maruk can see a positive aspect of his slight height.

"If I'm standing around, I'm useless," Maruk said. "I have to go all the time. If I was 6-1 or 6-2, maybe I wouldn't go so hard. Maybe if I was a lanky guy I wouldn't have to work so hard and I'd wind up being nothing."

Playing for lowly clubs -- California, Cleveland and Washington -- has not been a completely negative experience, either.

"If a good team drafted you, would you be playing for that team?" he asked. "When I was told my size was such a big problem, I decided that I would just play my best for the team that drafter me. I got lots of ice time and I have no regrets about going to California. Maybe I wouldn't get that ice time on a better team. Maybe I wouldn't play at all."

Although Maruk was a big hit with California and Cleveland fans who shouted "Maroooook" as he brought the puck up ice, there weren't enough loyalists to keep those teams going.Now he is concerned about the future of hockey in Washington.

"I always heard there were good people in Washington," Maruk said. "I wonder where they are. I heard about the sellouts and all, and I like to play in front of a big crowd, but they sure haven't been coming out this year."

Maruk concedes that the team's play has been a factor in an attendance dropff that has reached 2,676 per game.

"I like playing in Washington, but I don't know what it is, the way we've had problems at home," Maruk said. "a lot of games we've been leading, we've let up for four or five minutes, fallen behind and then we can't catch up. We have to play 60 minutes instead of 54 or 55. We have to win games at home. Then maybe the fans will come out."

The Capitals seem destined to follow the example of Maruk's previous employers and avoid postseason competition, but he has not abandoned hope.

"I want to know what iths like to be in the playoffs," Maruk said. "I was in my first All-Star Game last year and it was a great felling. I'd like to have the same feeling for the playoffs. I always look at the results, to see how Pittsburgh and L.A. and Detroit made out. We're not that far away. It we can put four or five games in a row, we'll be there.

"We have a lot of new faces and with a new coach and everything, it's been a big change. When everybody gets together, it will make a hell of a difference. It's 1979 already. Things should straighten out soon."

Maruk was pleased, as were line-mates Bob Sirois and Tom Rowe, when the trio was reunited Saturday in Toronto.

"the line with Bob Sirois, Tommy Rowe and me was able to click," Maruk said. "We acored a lot of goals and we weren't burned in our end. We're all hopeful we can keep that line going. Switching every game is tough on individuals. You're trying to play your game, plus finding out what their game is."

Although he leads the Capitals in scoring, Maruk is not pleased with his subpar goal-scoring figure of nine. In his first 11 games as a Capital, he had just one, into an empty net.

"I was frustrated," said Maruk who prove it by throwing his stick into the stands after the empty-net goal. "I'm used to scoring. But there's a lot of luck involved. You have to be skilled at your job, whether it's playing hockey or writing for a newspaper, but there's luck, too. I always believe in luck, no matter what it is. Some nights, the posts are on the goalie's side and some nights a puck will hit the post and go in.

"Then I banged my elbow in Colorado and I haven't been taking many shots. When the elbow is 100 percent, I'll take more shots instead of just trying to make pretty plays. The chances you get with Bobby and Tommy, you know you're going to score some."