Fewer than 10 days past his 18th birthday, Bobby Carpenter faces what will surely be one of the toughest -- and most important -- decisions of his young life.

Said to be one of the best hockey prospects ever to skate on American ice, as well as an honor student in school, Carpenter must decide within the next month whether to join the Washington Capitals organization as their No. 1 draft pick -- third overall in the National Hockey League draft -- or to pursue his athletic career at Providence College while studying computer science.

What's he basing his decision on?

"Everything counts. I have to consider everything. I want to make the right decision," said Carpenter, here to compete in the National Sports Festival which opens officially Thursday night.

Carpenter, by his own account, must weigh the long-term benefits of an education and the chance to play NCAA Division I hockey with the best in the nation at Providence against the opportunity for immediate big money.

Just out of high school, he must somehow decide whether he is physically and emotionally ready for the tough and punishing brand of hockey played in the NHL, but he also has to factor into that decision the risks of a college injury that could foreclose forever the possibility of a professional career.

"I've never missed a game because of an injury, but that's something you just can't put aside," said Carpenter, a native of Peabody, Mass., a city of about 48,000 15 miles north of Boston. "It's a big factor. It's happened to a lot of people."

The decision is his and his alone, Carpenter said. But he is relying on information and advice from his family, in particular his father, Robert Carpenter Sr., a Peabody police sergeant, and Bobby Orr, a family friend.

"I make the ultimate decision. They're just getting me the information," said Carpenter. "Obviously, if they give me so much money that I have to go, I'll go, but I want to go to college."

Carpenter said Max McNab, the general manager of the Capitals, met earlier this week with his father, but he did not know the details of their conversation. He said his father is acting as his representative in dealing with the Capitals because use of a professional agent would mean forfeiture of his college eligibility.

"He's an unusual and clever young man. We certainly would like to have him in the Capitals' organization," said McNab. "I also understand he has a 93 average in school. In any sport a No. 1 draft choice carries quite a lot of attention and publicity, and it must be quite a burden for such a young man. We have been deliberately trying to keep a low profile on this."

McNab did not name specific figures, but he said the Capitals will probably offer Carpenter "what we feel is appropriate for a third draft pick." Other estimates have cited figures of up to $500,000 over a three-year period as the price Carpenter could command should he elect to sign with the Capitals.

A standout hockey player at St. John's Prep, a Xavierian Brothers School in Danvers, Mass., Carpenter is said by his high school coach, Joe Yanetti, to be ready for National Hockey League play right now.

"If he doesn't go to college, he could step into the NHL right now and play. In a few years he'd be a star skater," said Yanetti. "That's a fact because I know the NHL. He might not be a 60- or 70-goal scorer, but the players who would play with him would be. He's excellent at dishing the puck off. He can make a good wing an excellent wing.

"He's just an exceptional hockey player. He skates well. He's strong. He's got a quick release, and he's fast. He can do anything on ice with the puck that he can do without it. The puck doesn't slow him down at all. You could almost call him the prototype of the professional hockey player. When the going is rough, he wants the puck. He's a winner, and he's a hard worker. In practice, he was always first on the ice and last off."

Lou Lamoriello, the Providence College hockey coach, would like nothing better than to have Carpenter playing for him next year, and he said Carpenter could possibly be the skater who could bring an NCAA championship to Providence, which reached the NCAA quarterfinals last winter.

Carpenter said he will wait until the festival is over before he decides between the Capitals and Providence College. He acknowledged that he was initially astounded at the prospect of being drafted as a professional right out of high school.

A key factor in his decision, he said, will be whether or not he can make it right away with the Capitals or whether he has to spend time in the minor leagues.

"If they say I am not yet ready and want me to play in the minors, then I am going to school," Carpenter said.

Carpenter said he is delighted with the prospect of being a Capital.

Should Carpenter elect to go to college, the Capitals will retain rights to him throughout his four years of college eligibility and for one year thereafter.