Bobby Carpenter, the Can't-Miss Kid, will be at Capital Centre Thursday to announce that he will sign a contract with the Washington Capitals, it was learned yesterday.

The National Hockey League club yesterday scheduled a news conference for the Centre at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, at which time Carpenter will "announce his decision as to whether he will attend college or sign with the Washington Capitals," according to the Capitals.

Obviously, Carpenter is not flying here to tell the world he has shunned the Capitals' offer in favor of matriculation at Providence College, where he had previously accepted a grant-in-aid.

There never was much chance that Carpenter would choose Providence, once Peter O'Malley, Max McNab and Gary Green convinced the Carpenter family their intentions were good, which was not its initial reaction after Washington maneuvered Carpenter away from Hartford in the NHL draft in June. It seems imperative both for Carpenter and the Capitals that the youngster, who became 18 in July, turn pro this fall.

The Carpenters used Providence as a lever to try to win a contract provision from the Capitals by which Carpenter could not be sent to Hershey of the American Hockey League. For a while it appeared that Carpenter might even start classes at Providence Sept. 1 in a final maneuver to obtain such a clause, but Friday the Capitals announced that the Carpenters had yielded on that provision.

"I think it's only common sense that if we have control of a young man, we need that right," General Manager McNab said yesterday. "If he joins our organization, we want him in a Capitals uniform as quickly as he wants to go there, but it has to be our decision."

The Hershey fuss was somewhat ironic. The Capitals do not want him playing in the minors; they need him not only to score goals but to fill seats. Playing in the tough Patrick Division, where they are likely to finish last and out of a playoff berth, the Capitals desperately need a gate attraction.

There are thousands of New Englanders with hockey backgrounds and inclinations in the Washington area, but many of them visit Capital Centre only when the Boston Bruins are playing. Should Carpenter click, he could be the key to saving the struggling Washington franchise. For all their temperate words about the benefits of a college education, the Capitals could not afford to let Carpenter stay away.

McNab said that no contract had yet been signed and declined to claim victory, merely stating, "We're standing by our statement."

Carpenter's brother, Ron, reported yesterday that Bobby and his father were at a party and were unavailable for comment.

In June, Robert Carpenter Sr. said, "I'd like to see him go to college, but I'm not going to tell him what to do. I don't operate that way. I do have a different outlook from Bobby. He'd just like to go play hockey any place."

Carpenter can collect $500,000 over the next three years as a Capital. As a Providence student, he would be playing under the risk that injury would cost him that rich contract. While a capable student, he is no scholar; if education were his primary aim, he could have picked Harvard.

More important, a year at Providence, playing 30 or so games rather than 80 as a pro, could further impede Carpenter's hockey progress. It has not been beneficial to his career playing 18 to 24 games against high-school competition while his peers were going 70 to 100 games in Canadian junior hockey.

When he faced the Canadians in the World Junior Tournament, though, Carpenter outplayed Dale Hawerchuk, the No. 1 draftee, scoring three goals as the U.S. won, 7-3. That performance inspired his label as the Can't-Miss Kid and raves as potentially the greatest American player ever.