Oh, crum. That's neat.

Ryan Walter may be the last 23-year-old to use those words repeatedly, and in conjunction. He'd be the All-American boy, except that he's Canadian. He's as clean cut as they come except for the 75 stitches he's had in his face; 25 from the time someone's skate went in behind his ear and just missed. He played the next game with an athletic cup taped inside his helmet to protect his ear.

He had a black eye when he proposed to his fiancee.

He is the captain of the Washington Capitals, a born-again Christian who dabbles in oil, and quotes poetry about fishing ("the greatest thing is where you catch 'em -- you don't catch em at cocktail parties"). He is considered one of the top 10 hitters in the National Hockey League. "He's right up there," said Curt Fraser of the Vancouver Canucks. "He's just got a knack for being there at the right time to hit people."

For Walter, this presents no contradiction. Quite the contrary. He approaches hockey with the single mindedness he brings to his faith. He is devoted to both.

Walter is no goon. Goons don't say, "Oh, crum." Goons don't worry about the NHL's image, how it markets violence. "We've got a stereotype as being those big, tough, macho people that can't speak and don't love anybody," Walter said. "Fighting enhances that."

He says he does not like to fight, but he will not back down. He would rather drop his gloves than raise his stick. "Once he and Bob Nystrom (of the Islanders) got into a fight and Ryan lost," said former Capitals coach Gary Green. "After the game, we found him in the equipment room in full equipment and skates, working out on the punching bag . . . The next time he and Nystrom went nose to nose, he didn't lose."

For years people have been asking the question: "What's wrong with the Capitals?" Not enough Ryan Walters. Not enough talent. Not enough aggressiveness. There is a sweetness about them that makes you wonder: maybe the Capitals are just too nice.

"That's part of the problem," said Coach Bryan Murray, whose team takes a three-game losing streak into tonight's 8:05 game with Toronto at Capital Centre. "They didn't want to be considered mean, dirty, aggressive players . . . They didn't back each other up on the ice, except Ryan Walter. Nobody wanted to rock the boat, have a bad image, get in trouble with the league . . . I said last year at the draft, 'Maybe it's time we drafted a few dirty bastards.' "

When Walter became a born-again Christian last January, he said, "I heard it through the grapevine that people thought I would change because of Christianity . . . We are stereotyped as Christian athletes. The stereotype is meekness. When you become a Christian, people think you don't stand up for yourself or the team." He is one of several Christians on the team.

Walter's faith, which has become a very important part of his life, may have given him peace of mind, but it has not made him a pacifist on the ice. Still, the issue of born-again athletes in sports was raised earlier this season during the 12-game losing streak. Green said he had heard some "rumbling" among some players and decided to bring it up at a team meeting.

Green was concerned "that there wasn't the closeness of players off the ice . . . It brought up the question, 'Is there anything preventing the two (groups) from getting together?' I brought it up in the context that I know some guys are (Christians), and some guys aren't. Some guys go to coffee shops, some go to bars. I said, 'It's important that we compromise and sometimes go out together.' "

The consensus was, Walter said, that the issue of faith was not the problem. "We hashed it out," he said. "It's in the past."

Walter, who is in the last year of his contract with an option year remaining, will be part of the Capitals' future. "He is the backbone of the team like Wes Unseld was to the Bullets," owner Abe Pollin said. "I guarantee we'll re-sign him."

A few years ago, Pollin was in an airport waiting for a flight, when a woman struck up a conversation about the Capitals. "She said, 'Do you know Ryan Walter?' " Pollin said. "And I said, 'He's the captain of my team.' The lady said, 'I was his sixth grade teacher and he was a natural leader then. He wasn't the best student but he was the natural leader."

The same could be said of him as a hockey player and team captain, the youngest ever in the NHL. He says he is a plugger, not someone "fans ooh about." He has 13 goals, 17 assists, 30 points and 55 penalty minutes in 26 games this year. He is good at everything, exceptional mostly in his effort.

"I certainly don't have (Mike) Gartner's ability to skate or (Denis) Maruk's ability to score," Walter said. "I think the ability to work hard is a talent."

Walter is the personification of the work ethic. At times, both Murray and Green have told him to knock it off. "I spoke to him about cutting out some of the extra workouts the other day," Murray said. "He does have a tendency to burn out, get very fatigued and maybe not play as well as he'd like."

When he was 12, he would wake his parents up at 3 a.m. for a practice scheduled to begin two hours later. "He could get by with a lot less work, but that's what he would do: get by," Green said. "That's what differentiates Ryan from a lot of guys in the American (Hockey) League."

He a quiet type who leads by example.

Example: He is last off the ice, last out of the dressing room, and first in consecutive games played, 234, a team record. In any of them, Gary Green says, he was taped and braced so much "we called him the mummy."

Example: A couple of years ago, he went to Peter O'Malley, then the president of the Capitals, and asked for help arranging a college program he could follow while on the road. "He said his mind was going stale," O'Malley said. "When the season ended, everyone left and he stayed behind to take finals."

Walter says, "I thought it would help my hockey."

People say he eats, drinks, breathes, sleeps, hockey. "You can almost see the sawdust grinding off his hockey stick," said Gary Green. "Ryan takes it with him. He needs his summers."

It is no accident that what he likes best about fishing is the absence of anxiety. "Fish don't lie, don't cheat, don't talk back, and you can't bribe 'em," he said. "The only way to catch 'em is through peace and quiet."

"Sometimes I think he thinks he has to carry the burden of the team, too, being captain, and that's not necessarily the case," said Gartner.

"He puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on himself," said defenseman Rick Green. "I don't know if it's because he's wearing the C. But sometimes he's too intense. He's got to get away from hockey."

Walter shrugs. "I don't sit at home thinking about hockey," he said, "I have too much vacuuming to do."