It's 7 o'clock in the morning, on an airplane, coming home after a 13-day road trip last week, and Dennis Maruk thinks the whole world ought to be awake.

The Capitals' rising star and resident imp had scored 15 goals in eight games. Gretzky, eat your heart out. With 51 goals and 59 assists, Maruk now owns all the Capitals' scoring records. Looking across the aisle of this plane streaking through the dawn, Maruk sees a rookie, Greg Theberge, asleep in his seat.

This will never do.

Maruk is famous with scissors. If a Capital is slow suiting up for practice, if it seems the laggard will be late tying his five miles of shoelaces, Maruk sneaks over with his scissors and cuts the laces.

Now in the sunrise over Winnipeg, the veteran Maruk decides the rookie Theberge is to be punished for sleeping.


Snip, snip, snip.

On the fifth snip, Theberge wakes up.

"I saw Dennis sit down," the rookie said, laughing through this story, "and I saw him putting the scissors in his back pocket, like he was hiding them."

Maruk didn't cut all the way through Theberge's tie.

"He snipped it just enough so that if I pulled it to tighten it, it would come in two."

When the Capitals' plane landed in Washington, Maruk convened the dress-code committee and fined Theberge $25 for wearing such a tattered tie.

Most Capital player deals are memorable in the sense the Titanic's sailing was memorable. The Islanders have won successive Stanley Cups with Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith--each passed over by the Capitals in the draft. The trade of a No. 1 choice to Minnesota to obtain Dennis Maruk four seasons ago is an exception in the Capitals' decade of dumbkoffery.

At age 26, Maruk is in full bloom. On a team desperate for offense, the little guy supplies quickness and guile with a stick in hand. "He finds the empty spots," said Edmonton goaltender Grant Fuhr, "and he'll surprise you with quick shots." Twice now, Maruk has had 50-goal seasons for a team not good enough to make the y'all-come NHL playoffs.

Only defenseman Rick Green and winger Ryan Walter have been Capitals as long as Maruk. The new general manager, Roger Crozier, and new coach, Bryan Murray, keep hiring bright young rookies with snippable neckties. Forty-two men have worn Capitals' jerseys this season. But the Green-Walter-Maruk troika is, and will be, the foundation of respectability.

To see Wayne Gretzky, more than 18,000 came to Capital Centre. If the Capitals were only as much as mediocre--a break-even team--hockey would sell here in a big way. When it does, it will be partly because Dennis Maruk did nice work a long time.

To understand Maruk on the ice, know this: at 5-foot-8 and 178, he is hockey's biggest little man. He puts the body on folks. Gretzky floats around the ice, waiting for the puck to come to him. Maruk goes mucking in corners for the precious frozen rock.

Maybe someone soon will realize Gretzky's way is the secret to scoring in bunches. No one scores pinning the puck with his skate. Maybe an enlightened coach will order his best scorer to stay out of the mucking. To be sure, Gretzky is a marvel of nature, gifted with instinct, vision and reflexes beyond compare. But look here. Gretzky has 20 penalty minutes in 66 games; Maruk has 106 in 64. And who knows how much time Maruk wastes mucking with big boys?

Gretzky stands beside the mugging mastodons and waits for them to spit out the puck.

"I like to hit, I like to get involved in things," Maruk said. "When I get the puck, because of my speed I can get away from the crowd. I have to keep playing my way because it's been successful. Because I have been more aggressive the last couple years, I'm helping the team more."

"I'm proud of Dennis," said Walter, who has taken a larger defensive role on the Maruk-Chris Valentine line to free the little guy for scoring forays. "Dennis has succeeded as a little man in a big man's game. He's had that size tag hanging over him all the time, and he's licked it."

"Dennis has never lacked any confidence," said Green, who is Maruk's cochairman in charge of tomfoolery. "Coming off that knee injury (two years ago), he's been hungrier than I've ever seen him. He's a great goal scorer. I'd put him up against anybody in the league going one on one. Whatever it is, he's always in the right place at the right time."

Isn't he too little for this big-man stuff?

"He's so strong, and when he's bearing down on the net as fast as he is," Green said, "you have to do a job to stop him."

Gretzky on Maruk: "People that have a lot of success in hockey are those that work hard, and he works very, very hard. The biggest thing about him is that he sees chances to score and when he sees them, he does something about them."

On the ice with Gretzky for only one shift the other night, Maruk turned the great one upside down, after which Gretzky was seen speaking to the little big man.

Gretzky: "We were just ribbing each other, nothing serious."

Maruk: "I don't know what he said, I wasn't listening."

This is unlike Maruk, who normally is in charge of everything. Whenever something strange happens around the Capitals, the finger of suspicion points at Dennis Maruk. The wake-up call came at 5 a.m.? Dennis dunnit. Room service delivers 15 cheeseburgers? Dammit, Dennis. And who is that suiting up for practice with a woman's blond wig on? Denice Maruk?

"Shoe check's the best," Maruk said.

What happens in a shoe check is that someone--Rick Green did it last--crawls under the team's dinner table. He finds a rookie's feet. He empties a bottle of catsup on the unsuspecting fellow's shoes and crawls back out, whereupon a cocon-spirator shouts, "Shoe check!" and everyone takes quick inventory of their feet.

"Gotta keep the rookies in line," Maruk said.