St. Jude, undoubltedly, would have been a Washington Captials fan. He is, after all, the patron saint of lost causes. And, until recently, rooting for the Caps was a martyrdom all its own.

Every team says its fans are the greatest: Cap fans are the greatest at suffering. They witnessed a 25-game losing streak the first year, and only 11 victories the second. Ed Randall, U.S. Navy retired, has seen every Capital's home game. "After spending 20 years in the Navy," he said, "you can endure anything."

Randall is one of perhaps 1,600 original season-ticket holders who have remained faithful through the years. They are possessive about their Caps. They scoff at the new fans who, they say, have come just to see the Caps win ot fight. They perceive no irony in that.

The Caps have attracted more than 14,000 fans for each of their last nine home games. "There are all these people coming out of the closet now that the team is winning," said marketing director Tom Hipp. "They want credit for staying with them."

They stay in part because watching a defenseman on a rush is more of a rush hour. They stay because of the breathlessness they feel when the ice comes alive with speed and steel.

Cap fans do not live by beer alone. Just ask Rick Gorsky. "We survive by heckling," he said. "We used to spend a lot of time heckling our own players because it was the only way we could enjoy the game."

How bad were the Caps? "They were so bad," Gorsky said, "They could have added Truman Capote to the team to add aggressiveness."

Gorsky, 32, dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, excused himself, stood up, faced the crowd and yelled: "Let's get vocal."

When the cheering died down, he said, "One standby in the old days was 'hit 'em with your purse.' And a real long time ago, we used to say, 'the last time I saw you hustle it was on 14th Street.'"

Earlier this season, when the Soviets came to town, Gorsky went bilingual.

"We found a Russian native who hates the Soviet system and we gave him a ticket. He was feeding me with words in Russian like, "We remember Czechoslovakia.'"

But now that it seems that the Capitals might make the playoffs, things have gotten serious. Gorsky has close games to contend with, as well as the organist.

The organist was serenading the crowd with music from "Fiddler on the Roof." The Caps were up by one. "Fans in our section say, 'Hey, Rick, you're quiet tonight, how come?'" Gorsky said. "The playoff drive is so serious that I find myslef biting my fingernails. I'm just not able to get into heckling. I feel better heckling when we've got a 5-2 lead.""

"Would you mind coming back between periods?" said Bill Cummings, staring down at the rink from the seat he has occupied for the last six seasons. "I don't want to miss anything."

Twelve minutes and 10 shots later, he said, "Now, what did you want to know?"

Cummings has been having an on-going conversation with former Boston Bruin coach Don Cherry, now of the Colorado Rockies, from that seat for four years.

"He's been threatening me, and I've been threatening him, I don't know what . . ." He paused.

"Well, anyway, I kept saying, "Why don't you come up here? I couldn't go down there because I'd get thrown out, and he couldn't come up here cause he'd get suspended."

Or so Cummings thought. Earlier this season, Cherry arrived at Cummings' seat. "It was between periods, and even the security people were surprised, he walked right by them. Of course, it was pretty easy to get by because the place was generally uncluttered with people.

"He said, 'Well, I'm here. What are you going to do about it?'"

"And I said, 'I'm not going to do anything. I'm just glad I was able to make an ass out of you.' It was pretty much a standoff."

Cummings' wife, Joyce says, "He eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. It's an obsession. But it's not his mistress. He's got to vent his hostility somehow. He doesn't smoke and he doesn't drink. This is it."

The sign hanging from the upper deck read: "Ryan -- Call Me, 454-2197." The note was sealed with a spray-paint kiss.

The phone rang 15 times before a deep voice answered. "No," said Chuck, "there ain't no girls here."

It was the men's dorm at the Univeristy of Maryland.

Women do like hockey. That much is for real. Kathy Montague "is hooked." She teaches fifth grade in Bowie when she's not too hoarse, and goes to every game in her Cap jersey. It has no name and no number. "She's noncommittal," said her sister.

Montague is anything but noncommital about the Caps. She has been to training camp for the last three years, has been to the draft and goes on fan club road trips when she can. Once the club went to New York "during a blizzard and the team was grounded and we were grounded," she said. "The team played cards, some of the guys went out to McDonald's. It was exciting."

Montague says it is important "not to get too emotionally involved" with players because when they make mistakes, get hurt, or get traded, "it hurts you."

"We have to try to retain our objectivity because of what we've gone through in the past," she said.

She admits she gets depressed in the offseason. "How do you get over it . . . You start looking forward to the draft or training camp. Some years are just harder than others."

Last August, Diane Jackson, 34, was named NHL Fan of the Year at the annual NHL Booster Club convention. She received an all-expense paid trip to Birmingham, Ala., to see the Atlanta Flames' farm club, the Birmingham Bulls. She even got to drop the ceremonial first puck at a Bulls' game.

"The trip may have been just to Birmingham," she said, "but it was the best I've had in a long time."

During the season, Jackson's life is "half hockey, half family. I can't say it's evenly divided. During the season, my daughters don't see me much."

Her husband is also a fan "but no as much as me," she said.

Jackson, the former president of the Caps Fan Club, said, "I have met all of the fan clubs. There are a lot of lonely people, men and women, middle-aged and above, who absorb happiness by identifying with the guys." Cap fans, she says, are different. "Perhaps because the team is younger, the fans are the same way."

Jackson concedes that the attraction to the game isn't just a athletic. "Under the surface," she said, "some of us fantasize."

"When I was younger, that was a very big part of it for me. Part of me is still all woman. And that's a part of each of us. But I've met an awful lot of gentlemen in hockey. Maybe if some of them reciprocated my feelings, I wouldn't feel that way."

Mary McKeough was sitting at rinkside, taking pictures. She takes three rolls a game. "Why are women attracted to hockey?" she asked.

"The men," she said.

Does she fantasize about them?

"Most people do," she said. "But not the Penthouse-type fantasy. A lot look at them and say, 'Gee, I'd like to meet a man like that. They look so big with their padding, those shoulders.'"

McKeough, who is in her early 30s, comes to the games with her mother. "But she won't sit with me because I get crazy sometimes," she said. "I'll go after the refs. I know most of them and I can say things to them that others don't understand. You can't just sit there, you have to say something.

"And I beat on people. I grabbed a stranger one night. It's better if I sit next to someone I know."

"Hockey is a very big part of my life," she continued. "It's hard to wall to wall. And I have 48 sticks, one from Jean Beliveau . . ."

Her voice trailed off. Defenseman, Pierre Bouchard, known as Butch, had lost the puck. McKenough sighed. "Oh, Pierre," she said.

"Caps fans are happier people now," said Jim McDonald, who hawks beer behind portal 14. "There are no more frustration fights inside the portals."

The bliss was short-lived that night. The Caps, who had been ahead all night, gave up two goals in the third period and trailed for the first time all night. Some in the crowd were not light-hearted, "You ought to count your lucky stars you got (referee Ron) Hoggarth out there sucking bettermilk," screamed Ron Miller, his breath misting the glass.

"Somebody should have punched his eye out," another fan responded.

At a baseball game, the yells of 50,000 people can evaporate in the stillness of a summer night, like the voices of children at dusk. At a basketball fame, the sound is street-wise, urbane and sometimes profane.

At Cap Centre, with 10 seconds to go and the Caps losing, 4-3, the tone was guttural, surly.

"At a baseball game, you have time to collect your thoughts and calm down between pitches," said Gorsky. "The same with football. But there is continuous action in hockey.It's like a spring inside a watch and it keeps winding and winding until finally the spring breaks inside some fans."

One fan behind the goal, sat in her seat holding her head.She had been hit with a puck. The crowd was hushed, save for one dissenting voice.

"Whattya, stupid?" he called. "You're not supposed to catch the puck with your face."