You have to shake hands with Bob Sirois to appreciate what he accomplishes for the Washington Capitals.

Sirois' arms would have been admirably suited for work as a blacksmith. They help him to outmuscle bigger defensemen in the corner conflicts that decide the outcome of so many hockey games.

Besides strength, Sirois is gifted with intelligence. He uses it to outmaneuver opponents on the ice, and his ideas of what is best for hockey go beyond the immediate contest, the present season.

For example, although he was an out-outstanding junior player:

"I think junior hockey is pretty sick," Sirois said. "Kids can't go to school and, if you do, you screw up both. In juniors, kids are playing up to 80 games. They should play 50. Hockey at that age should be geared to the colleges, the way it is in the States.

"As it is, everybody is trying to make a buck. They hire goons to draw people and a lot of good hockey players get out. So many of them have no education.

"I have 13 years of schooling, but I had to quite after I started my 14th year and I never went back. A lot of kids I played with stopped going to school at 15. Now some are bartenders, some have gone back to school and are still there at 25."

Besides his status as a thinking man's hockey player, Sirois was unique with the Capitals in their early years as a player who went both ways. He has some company now, but for a while Sirois was the Lone Ranger of backchecking. Last season, as a result of his diligence, he ranked fifth in the NHL in those vital plus-minus figures.

"I was more happy about that than any goals I score," Sirois said. "It was the nicesst thing for me. But when I went home and told my buddies in Montreal, they hadn't printed it, and most of them didn't know about it, and they were kidding me about making it up."

Sirois has 26 goals this season, his high in the NHL and the second-best mark on the team, but he is not especially pleaced about it, because his performance rating is minus-six.

The Capitals are back in Capital Centre tonight for a 7:30 date with the New York Rangers, which means Sirois will hear some disparaging remarks from a couple of his personal boobirds and will probably also suffer a dropoff in performance.

"I never played really well at Capital Centre," Sirois said." "I play better on the road. It's probably normal to boo me. I can't really complain. They're great fans. They've put up with a lot.

"In Montreal, they really know about hockey and the fans appreciate all kinds of play -- offensive, defensive -- even if it doesn't work. But a lot of places in the NHL even if they know the basics of hockey, they can't appreciate a lot of things going on the ice. I like critics as long as they're constructive."

Although Sirois is nicknamed "French" and enjoys playing in the Montreal Forum, he never regretted that the Canadiens passed him up in the 1974 amateur draft. He was chosen by Philadelphia, then passed along to Washington in December 1975 for winger John Paddock.

"Most of the other kids wanted to play for Canadiens, but I never did," Sirois said. "I didn't want to pass 10 years in Halifax. Only outstanding rookies like Ryan Walter make it all the way."

Sirois recorded 153 points in his final junior season to Walter's 125, but he pointed out that the Quebec League was a shooters' paradise and only he and his teammates, coached by Roger Bedard, paid much attention to backchecking. Pierre Larouche collected 251 points for Sorel that year and is still only a part-timer in Montreal.

The Flyers listed Sirois as a 6-footer, but he confesses to be only 5-10 and it took lengthy weightlifting sessions last summer to boost him to his current 180 pounds.

The lifting has helped him to absorb the heavy checks aimed his way and has contributed to his ability to play all 70 games thus far.

Aside from being relatively injury free, this has been an unusual seasons for Sirois in other respects. He scored four goals in his first 16 games, 13 in the next 18, two in the next 18 and nine in the next 12 and none in the last six. Minus nine over the first 16 games he has been a plus player since.

"I had him rated our most consistent player over the first 30 games," said General Manager Max McNab. "He tailed off, but he's been coming on again."

Sirois' interests transcend hockey. He and teammate Bob Girard share ownership of a suburban Montreal restaurant. Also, Sirois is an accomplished skier and might have followed a couple of pals in that direction except that "you have to work at it six or seven hours a day and you pay for your own."

Sirois, a 25-year-old bachelor, found hockey, with its less-stringent rehearsal requirements and liberal pay, more suitable. But if he had to practice hockey six or seven hours a day, he would rather be a chef. Sirois never has exerted himself when it doesn't count.

"He was this close to going to Hershey after my first training camp," McNab said, holding thumb and index finger a millimeter apart. "Only an injury kept him with us. I couldn't believe anyone could look that bad in practice and yet play so well."

McNab still can't fully understand Sirois' nature, but he appreciates his accomplishments. Sirois' five-year game contract, signed with the Flyers, is up in June although an option year remains. When McNab gets around to renegotiating, Sirois with his many pluses figures to be able to pay for a lot of ski lessons.