Surgeons took torn cartilage out of Yvon Labre's right knee last November, the same knee that had undergone ligament surgery previously, and the prognosis on the bony remains was not favorable

There were private warnings that Labre, the last remaining original Capital, probably had played his last game on defense for Washington.

Two weeks ago, while working out at Benfiel Pines, Labre came close to confirming that November forecast. The pain in the muscle above the right knee was excruciating and he wondered if, at age 30, his hockey career was over.

Today, however, as the Capitals endured their first day of official training, Labre was out there scrimmaging with the best of them, knocking down anybody who ventured into his territory, including referee David McNab.

"Two weeks ago, I was at the point where if it didn't get better in two days, I was going to retire," Labre said. "I don't know if I really would have, but the pain in the muscle was so bad I couldn't transfer my weight to my right leg.

"Now that pain is gone and I'm hopeful it will stay away. We didn't have any trainers at Benfield and maybe I didn't warm it up properly before I went out. All I know is it feels good now and with the brace. I'm using I can skate okay.

"The right leg still is only 75 percent, according to the tests they gave us, but that's a heck of a lot better than it was a few months ago."

Labre not only must bounce back from a severe injury, but he must fight for a position against the toughest competition in his seven years as a Capital. Nevertheless, he expects to start the season as one of the club's six defensemen.

"I know the competition is better now than in the six or seven years I've been here," Labre said. "I've never been one to back away from a challenge. There are guys probably here with more talent, so I just work hard to make up for the lack of talent they -- whoever they are -- say I don't have.

"I evaluate everybody and the way I see it, if I'm playing my game the way I can play, I'll be here. When people say I'm not going to make it, and a lot of people have said that through the years, I just work harder.

"I know I have the respect of some of the younger players for things I can do. Obviously, I don't do everything right. But I know they have confidence in my ability to take the man so they can take the puck. If I didn't have the respect of the players, I wouldn't want to come back."

Labre has labored for the Capitals since day one, serving in the captain's role until one of his many injuries forced him out. He has been a plus player in his latest three seasons, limited as they were, and plus players are too rare to be discarded without deep thought. Labre's enthusiasm for the team is another point in his favor.

I'm happy I'm still here," Labre said. "I love Washington. I've never had any doubt that this is where I want to be."

During the summer, Labre Spent $17,000 to build an addition and remodel the kitchen on his home in Bowie. At the same time, entering his option year, he rejected a Capital contract offer that contained qualifying clauses based on the condition of his knee.

"I'm being realistic," Labre said. "I think if the knee holds up, I'll make this team. And it seems to be holding up. People are always asking me what I'm going to do when I finish playing. I'll think about that when it happens. I'm never going to be ready to quit, even when I have to. People have had me through before and I've fooled them a few times. I always come to camp looking to make the team.

"I know it's tougher this year. These are guys who want to play. They were sometimes hard to find before, and some nights 10 guys would play and 10 would take a holiday, or maybe five would play and 15 would be on holiday."

Although he probably deserves one, Labre in seven years has yet to take his first holiday on ice.

The No. 1 power play in afternoon specialty drills had Ryan Walter, Dennis Maruk and Jean Pronovost up front, with Rick Green and Mike Gartner on the points. No. 2 unit listed Rolf Edberg, Guy Charron and Bengt Gustafsson with point men Pat Ribble and Darren Veitch . . .penalty killing foursomes included Glen Currie, Wes Jarvis, Pierre Bouchard and Paul MacKinnon; Leif Svensson, Antero Lehtonen, Labre and Howard Walker . . .Goalie Wayne Stephenson was sharp in his first skate since May. He high-jumped over the boards and crashed into the bench in a display of elderly enthusiasm. At 35, he is the old man of the ice . . .Defenseman Pete Scamurra and Brent Tremblay, who cleared waivers today, were released and paid off on the last year of their contracts.