Yvon Labre is a survivor. He came to the Washington Capitals in the expansion draft of 1974, he became an assistant coach when ailing knees forced him to retire in August and he was the only member of the coaching staff to last through Thursday's purge.

Told that he was most qualified to explain the franchise's failures through the years, Labre replied, "I can't talk about that."

Asked why, he tapped his head and said, "Total amnesia."

Obviously, the only way to survive with the one of the sorriest teams in the history of professional sports is to forget about it.

While winning 138 games, losing 346 and tying 89, the Capitals have shown consistency in only two departments: they have had double-figure winless streaks in each of their eight seasons and they have led the league in injuries four of the last five.

Long-suffering fans still appear at Capital Centre, although not in numbers sufficient to prompt accountants to order black ink. They come back despite unending losses, parking charges that are considered excessive and the absence of public transportation.

They maintain their sense of humor, too, as witnessed by the evolution of the homemade signs: from "There's an awful smell in the NHL, the Washington Crapitals" to the more recent "Handi-Caps." Despite the occasional derision, usually followed by a new coach, there is love for the team, too. Fan club banquets are sellouts, mobs still surround the exit doors to acquire autographs and loyalists even ride to Hershey on off days to watch the farm club.

"That could really be a tremendous hockey city," said Milt Schmidt, the first general manager, who now sells tickets for the Boston Bruins. "The fans will come out if you show them a game. It's just that the Capitals never really have."

The Capitals endured a breech birth in 1974 and they have had difficulty trying to get turned around ever since.

After Abe Pollin obtained the franchise, the team received more than 30,000 requests for season-ticket information. Anticipating sellouts, Pollin required full payment for season tickets by April 1, income tax time. Only 6,800 season tickets were sold and the ready availability of seats has kept the number around 5,000, with the result that midweek crowds rarely have reached five figures.

For $6 million, later cut in half by buying up the notes, Washington received title to 24 hockey players, basically fringe types and malcontents. Schmidt signed all but one, many to long-term contracts, thereby eating up money that could have bought quality players later.

Schmidt was given the first-round amateur draft pick and chose Greg Joly, a defenseman now in the minors, over the man his scouts recommended, Clark Gillies. Then he picked Mike Marson, now driving a bus in Toronto, when Bryan Trottier was available. The team finished with an 8-67-5 record, worst in NHL history, and lost 17 straight, a league record that still stands.

"They're paying for their early blunders," said Montreal General Manager Scotty Bowman. "It takes a long time to recover from some of the things they did. The same year they took Joly and Marson, the Islanders took Gillies and Trottier. Take those two off the Islanders and give them Marson and Joly and see what happens.

"They were looking for instant success with the poorest crop of inexperienced hockey players I've ever seen," said Jimmy Anderson, the first coach, who departed with a 4-45-5 record and now scouts for Vancouver. "At one point while I was coaching, I had seven left-handed defensemen. What are you going to do with seven left-handed defensemen?"

The second season, Schmidt tried to combine the general manager and coach jobs. As general manager, he drafted in the first round Alex Forsyth, who was to sign a five-year contract and play one NHL game. As coach, Schmidt would depart with a 3-28-5 record. He was replaced by Max McNab and Tom McVie, who brought the franchise some respectability its third year, when Guy Charron and Rick Green came aboard.

"I had nothing when we started," Schmidt said. "With all due respect to the players I had, they were minor leaguers. I wish I could have started with the players they have now. They have a really good hockey team, and for it to be 1-12 is embarrassing."

McNab had to start out with the worthless contracts Schmidt had negotiated, but still the club in 1976-77 almost doubled its point total, accumulating 62 compared with 32 the year before. With Robert Picard the top draft the following year, it seemed time for a big breakthrough.

Instead, the team flopped, suffering a 20-game winless streak. Picard, who figured to be a standout puck mover and power-play point man, became a divisive influence. He earned his teammates' dislike, and would eventually be traded, after joining Joly as a drafting disaster. Coincidentally, Picard was drafted the year the Islanders chose Mike Bossy with a later pick.

There was criticism of McVie's handling of younger players, especially Picard and Green, and he was dismissed suddenly by Pollin two days before the start of the 1978-79 season, for reasons never fully explained.

Where McVie worked the team whenever he could obtain ice and sometimes left players too whipped to play, successor Danny Belisle ran casual practices that he left as quickly as possible. Belisle stripped the popular Charron of the captaincy in a rigged election and soon found himself hooted out of town by angry fans.

The replacement in November 1979 was Gary Green, the wunderkind, the youngest coach in NHL history at 26. Green turned things around so quickly that he appeared destined to become general manager, president and eventually owner.

The first-ever playoff spot seemed likely, until a weird incident in Philadelphia the last week of the season. The Capitals had a 2-0 lead in the second period when Gary Rissling boarded the Flyers' Bob Kelly, stirring up the home team, which came back to win, 4-2. Washington finished 17th, two points shy of a playoff berth.

A month earlier, though, the fans had been invited to buy playoff tickets, in strips of 14. Tom Hipp, the marketing director, said it was necessary should Washington go all the way to the final. His fallacious thinking was not confined to the absurdity that the Capitals could continue to knock off the top teams; he thought they would acquire home-ice advantage for future series if they beat No. 1 Philadelphia in the first round.

Angry fans began figuring the receipts for playoff tickets and wondering if Pollin, so interested in the interest on those first-year season sales, was trying to bank a month's interest here, too.

Despite the near miss, Pollin extended the contracts of McNab and Green until June 1983. Although No. 1 draft pick Darren Veitch failed to find a place in the league, the Capitals started out at their fastest pace ever a year ago and hung onto 10th place in December. But injuries wiped out six players in two games on a western trip and the annual winless streak, 13 games in February and March, made the playoff struggle tense.

Despite victories in Philadelphia and Boston, the Capitals came up a point short when Toronto swept a last weekend series from Quebec and grabbed 16th place. The guarantees of playoff participation by Pollin, Green and goalie Mike Palmateer were rendered worthless and Pollin, apparently in contrition, abandoned public speaking. An effect of his silence was a multiplication of rumors of trades and managerial shakeups that has not yet ceased, despite the firing of McNab and Green. Once again, Pollin was unavailable for comment yesterday.

This season began under the shadow of realignment and an unbalanced schedule. As a Patrick Division companion of the powerful New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals were scheduled for eight games against each, with home-and-home series listed early in the schedule.

During their 1-12 start, the Capitals have not defied the gambling odds once. They have beaten Detroit at home, in the only game in which they were favored. They have lost all the rest, either at home against far better teams, or on the road, where a team of Washington's caliber never has been picked to win.

As the losing streak grew to its present 11 games (going into last night's contest against the New York Rangers), however, players second-guessed themselves, lost confidence and began running around instead of playing disciplined hockey. Veterans used the presence of rookies to alibi their own horrendous play and team unity was nonexistent.

"Both Washington and Colorado have had losing traditions and that's a psychological factor a lot of teams don't have to overcome every time they go out on the ice," said the Rockies' general manager, Billy MacMillan. "The way they've been going the last couple of years, missing the playoffs by one point, it's got to be discouraging. I'd just hold my head and pray."

Pollin held his head and balance sheet, and cleaned house. Green was an obvious scapegoat, since it was apparent he had lost his grip on the players. McNab joined him, after a tenure of almost six years, because he had not acted to fill the team's obvious needs.

With Picard failing to develop and eventually being traded, there was no accomplished puck mover on the defense. The left point on the power play was entrusted to rookie Bobby Carpenter, whose natural mistakes soon eroded his initial exuberance. There was no policeman to keep opponents from hammering Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson and other finesse players.

While conceding the obvious defensive shortcomings, McNab was unable to make a deal, although he offered his No. 1 draft choice for 1982 to three interested teams. Pollin had formed an executive committee of top management, including himself, the year before, to encourage McNab to make some moves, but still there was reluctance.

The need for a policeman was apparent during the exhibition season, when the team's penalty leaders were Mike Gartner, Carpenter and Ryan Walter. But McNab and Green refused to consider obtaining one in the waiver draft, when several were available.

"The power play is the great equalizer," said McNab, despite the Capitals' ineffective extra-man play and the reluctance of NHL referees to call many fouls.

"How do I tell a good hockey player he has to sit in the stands so one half as good can play?" asked Green.

So today the Capitals' penalty leaders are Walter and Carpenter, with Gartner close behind, although the timidity of the Capitals in many contests has induced opponents to just leave them alone and win anyway.

Through the years, the Capitals' injury figures have been almost inverse to the penalty totals. It would seem they have been hurt as hittees, rather than hitters. When trainer Gump Embro was fired in July, there was talk that he had been lax about treating some wounds and had contributed to the problem, but this season has shown little letup in that area, despite Bill Bozak's unblemished reputation.

Todd Bidner is out with a broken leg; Orest Kindrachuk has strained muscles in his back; Gartner has played 10 games with a bruised right hand that affects his shooting; Rick Green has a cast on his right wrist; Gustafsson is hobbling on a strained knee that has been splinted; Walter wears braces on both knees and has a sprained thumb, too.

The league-high injury totals are almost unnatural: 277 man games lost in 1976-77, 265 in 1977-78, 242 in 1978-79 (second to Vancouver's 257), 410 in l979-80, 347 in 1980-81.

Gary Green was answering the phone in the Capitals' office one summer day when a fan called and expressed disappointment over last season, then said if she could wish the Capitals anything, it would be good health.

"That's all I wish, too," Green said when training camp opened. A week later Timo Blomqvist had a broken jaw, struck by a flying puck, and Pierre Bouchard had a broken nose after colliding with teammate Harvie Pocza. It is as if a dark cloud is hanging up there, following the Capitals around, while Joe Blpftsk smiles, glad to pass it along to someone else.