Such players as Washington defenseman Gord Lane, who are ready to fight at the drop of a glove, are known to those they serve in the hockey world as policemen. To those they use as punching bags, they are less affectionately known -- and never within their hearing -- as cement heads.

From the first day he appeared at Capital Centre more than three years ago and slugged it out with Chicago's Grant Mulvey, through a club-record season of 207 penalty minutes and on through a 195-minute campaign a year ago, punctuated by his challenge to the entire Detroit bench, Lane seemed to fit the definition of cement head.

There was only one problem with such a label: Lane is an intelligent young man, wisely manipulating his summer breaks to close in on a bachelor of sc ience degree at Brandon University in his native Manitoba. Always interested in the outdoors and wildllife, Lane has worked with Ducks Unlimited and plans to follow his hockey career with employment in a conservation capacity.

It seemed several times in the last couple of years that @lane, now 25, was destined to embark on that second career earlier than he planned. Ill-advised fights sent him to the penalty box more often than management desired. Off-target passes wound up on opponents' sticks, often were deposited in the Capitals' net shortly thereafter and prompted Capital Centre critics to singe his ears.

The favorite taunt of the unimpressed was "Lois," which seemed a misnomer in view of the success the 6-foot-1, 189-pound Lane enjoyed, without help from Superman or anyone else, in clearing the Capitals' crease and discouraging visiting tough guys from decapitating Lane's teammates.

Lane is not being downgraded by either management or fans this season, however, and polished play seems to have chased the cement head tag forever. After early assignments keyed to benchwarming and farm labor, Lane has blossomed as a dependable performer on the Capitals' back line. He is moving the puck well, clearing the zone with authoritative passes and generally doing the things expected of someone who is playing smart hockey, an accolade General Manager Max McNab bestowed on Lane yesterday.

Lane has accomplished all this while maintaining his effectiveness in steering opponents out of the crease and without backing down from a possible fight. Friday, for instance, he bruised his brittle right hand for the umpteenth time, using Colorado's Ron Delorme as the outraged target.

"He's got respect," said McNab, who receives frequent queries about Lane's availability. "When you get respect, you don't have to fight twice a night. There was a time when he was putting us in had holes, but now he's picking his spots. I remember when Gordie Howe first came up, he fought with everybody. Finally, Jack Adams told Gordie, 'Now we know you can fight, let's find out if you can play hockey.'"

"I'll never quit fighting," Lane said."That is probably the reason I'm in the National Hockey League. Every hockey team has to have an aggressive player so the opposition won't take advantage of our players. You have to make them realize there's always somebody around to take care of our better hockey players. I'd rather be in the penalty box than a better hockey player."

Guy Charron, the Capitals' captain, knows the value of having Lane to back him up against the bullies.

"He's a great asset to the Caps," Charron said. "He's the kind of hockey player you need around the team. In the warmup, you look for the tough guys. They see No. 28 and it makes them think. And on the ice, there aren't too many guys who want to go in front of the net when Gordie's out there.

"He always states with his head up. When he's got the puck, nobody takes a run at him. He can handle the puck a couple of extra seconds and make the good play because he gets extra room.

"And he's a good, honest worker, a competitor who loves to play hockey. He works hard in practice, he does extra drills and he's become a better hockey player. He's learned to handle the puck real well. Except for Pic (Robert Picard) and Greenie (Rick Green), he's probably the best at bringing the puck up the ice."

Lane has always been a hard worker; otherwise, he would have been separated from a hockey career long ago. Drafted in the ninth round by Pittsburgh in 1973, Lane was primarily collecting splinters with Fort Wayne of the International League, until his club played Dayton, coached by Tom McVie.

"When I first saw Lane, he couldn't skate, he couldn't handle the puck and he couldn't shoot," McVie said. "But he had a lot of courage. I got him at Dayton and he just lived in the rink -- as long as they'd let him on the ice, he'd be out there working."

"Tom McVie gave me a chance to play in Dayton and I worked pretty hard on my own while I was there," Lane said. "I eventually developed into a fair International League player. When Tom McVie came up (to the Capitals), he gave me a tryout and that's how everything else developed."

Without McVie's support, Land never would have seen the NHL. But it was Danny Belisle's system that helped to make Lane a better player. Lane always had trouble handling the puck in his own end, kan incompatible failing when McVie preached the need to set up behind the goal before starting to move the puck out. Too often forecheckers forced Lne into errors.

"I started out last season turning and passing quickly up the ice, but it wasn't appreciated," Lane said."They wanted to set it up. This year I've talked to the center icemen we've worked on getting it out quickly. The faster we get the puck out, and get clear of our end, the better chance we have to score. I've watched the other defensemen around the league and that's the general play, just get it up."

"If you're always setting up, you're also setting up the defense against you," McNab said, "and the biggest problem with Gordie, who doesn't have a natural move to turn one way and go another, was that he was always getting pinned by the forecheckers. Now he gets the puck moving and he's trapping more guys by getting it out quickly.

"The other night in Detroit (a 4-1 victory Jan. 6) I thought he had his best game with the Capitals. He did it all that night. He never mishandled the puck and he made several breakaway-type plays."

There was doubt about Lane's role at the start of the season. He was assigned to Hershey, then called up for the Capitals' seventh game, which he marked by pulling a shoulder muscle in a fight with Mulvey. He recovered quickly, but did not play again for two weeks and it is only in the last month that he has attained regular status.

"I was a little upset at the start of the season, but I was aware that other teams were interested in me," Lane said. "I was also aware of the Tom McVie shakeup. I had come up with Tom McVie and I felt they were trying to rid the organiaztion of his presence. After I came up from Hershey, I felt I was playing well. But they didn't seem to have confidence in me, so I figured I'd just ride her out until something happened."

Injuries to Green, Pete Scamurra and, most recently, Leif Svensson, forced Belisle into greater dependence on Lane. The results have been gratifying.

"He's really picked up lately, the last dozen games or so," Belisle said. "He seems to respond when we have a problem, like the injuries to Greenie and Scamurra. He has jumped in and become a key guy for us.

"He's a defensive defensemen, of course, and he's not an offensive threat, so you don't notice him much. But he's certainly doing his job defensively."

"There are a lot of little things about the game he has to learn," McNab said. "But he got here by determination and he will improve by determination. He seems more relaxed. He's getting the feeling he can play in this league."