At first, because he is a proud and determined man who desperately wants to overcome his monumental blunders himself, Abe Pollin had trouble blurting out the seemingly obvious plight of his hockey team:

Help.

During his most recent management line change with the Capitals, about seven months ago, and with that we're-looking-for-investors admission within the last month, Pollin's was a louder but still rational:

HELP.

Because of what legal counsel Peter O'Malley made public Friday, Pollin might as well grab a bullhorn, strap himself halfway up the Washington Munument and scream:

HELLLLP!!!!!

O'Malley said: ". . . after putting a great personal fortune into it, he (Pollin) has made a policy decision that he can't go it alone any longer."

Meaning that unless someone drops several bulldozer loads of money on Pollin's stoop, the Capitals will capsize. Go skates up in Washington or, in a twist Pollin once suggested could not happen before the clock ran out on the 20th century, he moved.

And the reaction among Washington's sporting masses:

Oh.

That shocks and saddens Pollin beyond belief. Less than a decade ago, he lifted the area to major league in two sports, basketball and hockey. Gave us a world championship with the Bullets four years ago. Now a man who correctly sees himself as being as civic-minded as anyone not paid to be so is hurt and angry about area-wide yawning over his dilemma.

There are no fans marching on government to demand a stay for the Capitals; no newspaper campaigns to save the team; no Prince George's County officials charging his door and offering tax relief. Eight years of agony, Lord only knows how many millions melted and his town dismisses the Capitals as quickly as they would a bad dream.

What's an area that pitched a fuss over losing baseball before the Capitals arrived, and soccer after the Capitals should have been at least ordinary, to do? We've bought the argument that Washington will go crazy for a hockey winner for as long as Pollin has tried to sell it.

But eight years of failing to gain the playoffs in the sport that makes that modest goal easiest to achieve is a mighty dry spell. Is it too much to ask for a cup of playoff coffee every three or four presidents? The Capitals have been awful long enough to sour many of their early faithful and to create terminal apathy among the rest of us.

A Catch 22 element seemed to plague the Capitals. Because they played honorable hockey, they had some appeal; because they had no goons, they became the Chrysler of sport, and Pollin lost his hockey shirt.

For the right price, the Capitals were not too offensive to the eyes. And watching them without paying evidently could be easily accomplished. They announced an average attendance for a 40-game home schedule last year of 11,378. Yet The Post's Bob Fachet and Kathy Blumenstock reported the capitals' gross receipts were $2.9 million. Assuming an average ticket price of $9, if all those 11,378 had paid, the gross would have exceeded $4 million.

Apparently, economics are such that the team might have to sell out every home regular-season game simply to break even. The tax advantages for investors in sport are much less than when Pollin took his gamble. And although they have gotten much less attention than their NFL brothers, NHL players also are considering a strike.

Gulp!

To the possible arm-twisting news that Pollin suddenly might be able to satisfy long-term financiers of Capital Centre without hockey, that the Capitals might be able to move, comes the response: to where? Is this Pollin's final ploy to keep the selling price grossly inflated and recapture as many lost millions as he can?

The expansion-loony NHL already has failed in cities in which the Capitals possibly might seek refuge. Others are not likely to tolerate the vast difference beteen minor-league and NHL ticket prices. But if Pollin thought only with the bottom-line part of his mind, if his community conscience had not been tugging long and hard, wouldn't the Capitals already be in the Meadowlands?

Pollin might not talk as often as we'd like, but he tells no lies when he does. Saying nothing, but not accepting season-ticket orders, he sent us the proper alarm message.

Only Pollin knows his deepest anguish with the Capitals. One of the saddest, most telling times had to be in mid-March. The team had a reasonable chance at that playoff grail; a media bandwagon was forming. A halfway decent team surely would get more than halfway decent support when that was most necessary. The season, the franchise was on the line.

Came pivotal home games; came almost nobody.

Pollin watchers are dazed by a bolt of irony: how can a builder of teams get one, the Bullets, so right and the other so wrong? Except for the Celtics and Lakers, his Bullets have been as successful as any team in the NBA. Prosperous in the Unseld-Hayes years, they were rebuilt in a wink.

Hockey is where construction genius and basketball brilliant Pollin tries to pound large squares into small holes, where he either hires front-office people who wouldn't know Mike Bossy from Bossy the cow or meddled too often with those who did.

It's a wicked cycle that safe, predictable, inexpensive measures rarely reverse: a man with no hockey background makes his first management decision a dreadful one. Then he compounds that by staying dominent in personnel matters. Nobody knows; nothing shows.

In November, when he announced his seventh coach in eight years, Bryan Murray, Pollin acknowledged the Capitals were the greatest disappointment and failure of his business life. To suggestions that he hire an absolutely proven surefire hockey man to assume control, as he'd apparently failed some years before with Scotty Bowman, Pollin insisted he knew best.

Unlike Bob Short and the Gulf and Western Gang, Pollin isn't conning us. Long-term anyway. Now, he's stopped fooling himself.