There was a trace of Novocaine in his voice, as if Ryan Walter had numbed himself to the events that shifted his world.

"I'd heard the rumors that Montreal was interested in me," he said that Saturday in September. "But I had been told not to worry, that I wouldn't be traded. I guess I should have paid more attention when management changed."

Walter, the former captain of the Washington Capitals, had been bundled and shipped with defenseman Rick Green to Montreal, in exchange for four Canadiens. More than a day after receiving the news, and a few hours before joining his new team at training camp, he was still trying on the idea. No more wearing Washington's star-spangled jersey; Walter was one of Les Canadiens.

At 7:35 tonight his past and present face off at Capital Centre in Montreal's only visit to Washington this year. "I haven't seen them (the Capitals) yet, but I hear they're pretty good," Walter said yesterday. "I obviously want to beat them when we play, but I am pulling for them. They've got a good club."

For Walter, the trade that boosted Washington's stock left him temporarily stunned. He had begun his NHL career as Washington's first-round draftee in 1978, the second player chosen overall that year. He spent part of last summer in Washington, waiting to see if the financially strapped franchise would be on ice when the season arrived.

Like the local fans, Walter put in appearances at ticket-pushing rallies and telethons. Naturally, his interest was of the vested variety. His contract was up for renegotiation, a situation left on hold until the team's finances got a transfusion.

"They put a freeze on contracts during the whole thing," he said. "They weren't even buying sticks and other equipment. That's when I realized there really was a possibility they wouldn't go on. I wasn't in a big rush to sign a contract anyway. What if you sign a long-term, and then there's a dispersal draft? I'd have to go wherever they sent me, so I wasn't going to sign just anything.

"But no matter what happened with the Capitals, I figured we'd -- I'd -- play hockey someplace."

The place he didn't figure was Montreal's Forum.

"That's one thing I want to make clear," he said yesterday. "This was their (the Capitals') move. I wasn't looking to go anywhere. I was happy and settled in Washington."

Just before the trade, Walter's wife Jennifer began classes at the University of Maryland, in pursuit of a master's degree in English. She withdrew from the program, and spent two weeks packing and saying farewells.

"It's sad, just really sad," she said. "Ryan had always said to me it was his dream to be with the Capitals when they won the Stanley Cup. He had been there through all the bad times, and he really wanted to be part of the good. That hurt the most for him."

But for a hockey player with a Stanley Cup on his mind, isn't a spot in Montreal almost heaven?

"Oh, sure, it's a great, great career opportunity," Walter said. "In Montreal, there's all that fan support for hockey. It is a hockey town, and there is the chance of winning a Stanley Cup."

Walter is reluctant to speculate on the effects of the big trade. "It's tough to judge," he said. "You hope it works great both ways. And maybe two or three years down the road, you can point and say where it's helped both clubs."

The deal, which sent all-star defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, defensive center Doug Jarvis and winger Craig Laughlin to the Capitals, has been described on both sides of the border as a "blockbuster."

Some cynics are still looking for defects in the Montreal merchandise. Others contend Montreal coveted Walter so much that Canadiens management lost all perspective, and handed David Poile, Capitals general manager, a complete shopping list.

Walter, who is playing on a line with Guy Lafleur and Doug Wickenheiser, says the reaction to him in Montreal has been "all positive" -- a favorite Capitals phrase -- but admits, "When you're 5-1, nobody can be too negative."

Walter has had a pair of game-winning goals, against Boston and Hartford, and has avoided making too many changes in the way he plays. "There's more flow in the (Montreal) game. They promote a skating game as a club," he said. "They saw something they wanted in me, and if I change my style and try to be something else, that's not fair to them."

After less than six weeks, Walter glances back at his Capitals career without bitterness. "Really, we are not in control of things, so there's no use being negative," he said. "It's pleasant here (Montreal), a whole new culture, new challenges."

What does he miss most about Washington? Anyone with a living room full of cartons in an unfamiliar city knows. "Friends. I do miss our friends there."

One particular friend is former teammate Mike Gartner, who chats with the Walters by phone frequently.

"On Sunday, he and Ryan were talking," Jennifer Walter said. "It was after the Buffalo game (a 9-2 loss for Washington), and Mike was telling him all about it. I heard Ryan say, 'Well, Buffalo always played well against us.' He meant the Capitals."

Capitals Coach Bryan Murray will go with the following lines against Montreal: Bengt Gustafsson, Gartner and Bobby Carpenter; Milan Novy between Alan Haworth and Gaetan Duchesne; Dennis Maruk between Ken Houston and Ted Bulley and Laughlin and Torrie Robertson alternating at left wing with Jarvis and Bob Gould.