The Washington Capitals traded Tom Rowe, the highest-scoring American in National Hockey League history, to the Hartford Whalers last night for another American, defenseman Alan Hangsleben.

In effect, the Capitals were replacing departed Gord Lane, the rugged defenseman who kept the opposition honest. Hangsleben in the same type, a rough-and-rowdy player who does not hesitate to mix it up or to dive in front of a puck.

Rowe, who joined the Capitals in December 1976 and scored a goal in his first NHL game, left smiling. He is a native to Lynn, Mass., less than two hours from Hartford, and he has always been cheered by numerous friends on Washington's visits there.

"At first, I was very shocked, because this is the first time this ever happened to me," Rowe said. "But I'm happy. Hartford wanted me, so I wanted them. It's the same situation there as here, a team building for the future. And if Washington didn't think they could use me, that's okay, too." f

Rowe scored 31 goals last season, an NHL record for an American, and he was honored by the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States in a ceremony at Lake Placid last summer. aThis season has been a difficult one, however, with only 10 goals, and he has scored only one in the last 17 games.

Rowe's mother died the week before the season started and he admitted that shock was not so easy to overcome.

"I haven't even got over it yet," Rowe said. "When I went home at Christmas, it hit me in the face all at once. We're a close family and everybody misses her. It took away part of my concentration on my game, but I'll never put hockey ahead of my family. That's the way life is." g

Rowe, 23, had good words for both the Capitals and the man who is replacing him.

"Hangleben will give them music, and that's the kind of team Gary Green wants," Rowe said. "He's a good standup defenseman and he takes the body very well. I have no hard feelings at all. The Capitals treated me first class since the first day I came here.

"I wish all the guys on the team good luck in the playoffs and I hope they get close, but not enough to knock out Hartford."

The Whalers, by beating Pittsburgh last night, have 32 points; Washington, last in the league, has 28.

Hangsleben, 26, who scored his third goal of the season against the Penguins, is a native of Warroad, Minn., and a graduate of the University of North Dakota. He was in his sixth season with Hartford, joining the World Hockey Association team in 1975 after turning down an offer from Montreal.

Since Lane went to the New York Islanders, the Capitals have lacked a tough guy to assist Paul Mulvey against physical teams like Philadelphia, which comes to Capital Centre Saturday night. Hangsleben will be asked to assume that role.

Washington's defense is presently a shambles, with Rick Green nursing a sprained wrist and Robert Picard troubled by a bruised arm.

We've been trying to trade for a defenseman and we escalated our efforts," said General Manager Max McNab. "Our needs required some action. Hangsleben is a strong, physical player who will fit very well in Gary's (Coach Gary Green) system."