Joe Bearson stood in the darkening hallway of Capital Centre, holding a shattered hockey stick.

A college professor, Bearson resembled a little boy too thrilled with a souvenir to leave the stadium and go home.

"This is Dennis Maruk's stick... the one he used on his goal," announced the professor of marketing proudly, surrounded by his wife, friends and assorted small children.

Six weeks ago, no one -- certainly not Bearson -- would have wanted anything belonging to a Washington Capital.

"Those of us who have been season ticket holders from Day One were disgusted with the Caps," said Bearson. "I was ready to trade (owner) Abe Pollin to Montreal for a good organist.

"I had named myself president of the Anti-Rick Green Fan Club. He was the symbol of a team that was driving me nuts. Here I was -- a grown man -- screaming names at this poor youngster. I called him 'Bubblehead,' and 'Martian.' I'd yell, 'Hey, designated imbecile, where are your training skates?'

"I got so bad that he was looking for me in the crowd. When his performance rating got to 'minus 30', I thought I'd lose control of myself. When he finally scored, I stood up and yelled to the other season ticket holders, 'Stop cheering. This man still owes us 29 goals.'

"Now, I'm ashamed of myself," says Bearson, not looking too ashamed.

"My wife and I reached the point we were carrying signs, 'Green for Hershey,'" said Bearson, referring to the Caps' minor league site in Pennsylvania.

"We were going to buy Hershey bars and throw them at the players if they got any worse... After five years of suffering, you can get pretty fed up."

Now, all is forgiven. Change the Capital Centre's name. Call it The Happy House. Never has there been so much to yell about in Pollin's saddlebacked playpen.

Fans of the Caps and Bullets -- long thought to be mutually exclusive tribes -- now spend their time in a common pursuit: trying to raise the Centre roof with cheers.

Which is the stronger emotion -- the thrill when a good team such as the Bullets suddenly learns to be great, or when an atrocious team, the Caps, finally achieves dignity?

Centre evidence is that Escape From Humiliation ranks highest. In decibels, the Caps are creating the biggest stir.

Last weekend, Pollin, owner of all he surveys, stood in the portal of section 106 and shook hands with the fans. He might have been a restaurant owner asking if the roast beef was tender. These days no one complains about Pollin's fare.The Caps have proved to be a perfect dessert to accompany the long-running Bullet feast.

"It's incredible. We're so happy," says Bearson's wife, Kay, pinching herself to believe the Caps 8-5-2 record in 1979. "And, brother, do we deserve it."

Few have suffered as Cap fans have Even the New York Mets never went 40 days without a victory, as the Caps did last year.

"I feel like I'm hallucinating," says Mary Lou Walten, a season-ticket holder with her husband since the Caps' first game. "Now the crowd counts up the Cap goals, chanting, 'One, Two, Three, Four... WE WANT FIVE!'"

"I can remember how that cheer first began," she says. "We used to chant, 'We want ONE.'"

"These years have been unbelievable," says Kay Bearson. "Once I was cheering for the Caps and the woman in front of me turned around and said, 'Dear, will you please shut up? I'm trying to do my crossword puzzle.' "I told her, 'Honey, I think you belong at the ballet.'"

Or perhaps at a Bullet game. No crowd could offer a better counter-point to the currently ecstatic Capital buffs than the Bullet band.

Since the Centre opened, Bullet crowds have been stylish, knowledgeable but distinctly blase, at least until the playoffs start. Bullet fans have never suffered -- inheriting a contender from the start.

Cap crowds have always been enthusiastic, unselfconsciously frumpy and glad to admit they had much to learn.

By their feet, ye shall know them. Bullet fans wear patent leather shoes, tooled cowboy boots, new expensive Adidas, and high heels. Cap fans favor hush puppies, earth shoes, old U.S. Keds, regulation black police department clodhoppers and ancient utilitarian things without name.

Both teams draw almost identical crowds -- 10,000 plus change. But, as Bearson says, "Pollin may be the only person who comes to watch both teams regularly."

Bullet crowds tend toward an artificial colorfulness. Tiny, the lost-a-step dachshund mascot,competes with the halftime hamburger clowns and a preposterous Fat Lady (the world's only soul valkyrie) for lowbrow honors.

Cap gatherings have an indigenous zaniness. For instance, the NHL Hall of Fame contains only one rubber chicken. It is part of the Cap team display, property of Sharon Byrus, the veteran fan who reached over the sideboards and waved the fowl in the faces of Cap opponents.

"We've endured so much that we've had to learn to laugh," says Walten. "We're the only fans that get intimidated in our own arena. When the Flyers come to town, their rowdy fans put broken bottles under the tires of cars with Caps stickers."

In this cruel world, Cap fanatics become addicted to talismans and superstitions.

"My husband Max had come to 14 Cap games this year and seen 14 losses," said Walten. "Then the team went on this winning streak. Well, he couldn't bear to come and jinx them." So, when Max Walten finally showed up last week, he told his fellow season-ticket holders, "This is not me. I'm not really here tonight." In order to deceive the fates, Walten spent the night cheering loudly for the New York Rangers. When the Caps scored, he would turn around and clap with his back to the ice.

Not surprisingly, such Capophiles are part missionary, constantly indoctrinating defenseless children and susceptible adults in the charms of hockey.

"Lisa," says Bearson, quizzing the 9-year-old girl in the row adjoining his, "who's your favorite player... and don't say Rick Green."

"I like Robert Picard," says the little blond angel, smiling, "'cause he's mean and crazy. Our team needed a good crazy."

Good crazies are what hockey has most of, on both sides of the glass.

After Saturday's fifth-straight Caps' home victory the crowd of 14,983 roamed out of the Centre with hundreds of fans lowing the high-scoring Maruk's name -- "Ma-ruuuuuuk, Maruuuuuuuk."

"When you see this crowd," said one surprised looking little man, "you can understand why only one-third of the American people vote. These people are in another world."

The legion of those whose bodies have been snatched by the Caps is growing.

"Right now the whole team could march down Pennsylvania Avenue and not one person in 100 would know who they are," said Bearson. "But the Caps day will come."

"We invited Maruk to my husband's surprise birthday party the other day and he agreed to come," said Mary Lou Walten. "We had 30 other guests and I told them, 'Dennis Maruk is coming to dinner.'"

"Every last one said, 'Who's he?'"

That state of affairs may be changing.

"For the first time ever, I was standing in the line to the Centre men's room today," said lifelong fan John Bohrman, disbelief spreading over this hockey-loving fan. "And do you know what they were talking about....

"The Caps!"