Considering he's a man with something to prove, Ken Houston thinks he's off to a great start.

"I think any player who's coming to a new team has to spend some time proving himself, and I knew I had to win their confidence here," said Houston, who was traded from the Calgary Flames to the Washington Capitals last June.

Going into tonight's 7:35 game against Winnipeg at Capital Centre, Houston has 10 goals, five on the power play, and nine assists in 25 games. General Manager David Poile, who also worked for the Flames, calls Houston "a rejuvenated player on a new team with new ideas. Ken's working out well for us."

Houston's concern for demonstrating just what he can do goes deeper than surface hockey skills. A long, draining battle with hepatitis put Houston's reliability in question, and he's anxious to erase any doubts.

"When they diagnosed it in May 1980, the last season we were in Atlanta, the doctors said I'd had it a while, maybe since that (previous) Christmas," he said. With no energy or appetite, Houston was always tired and played sluggish hockey at best.

"When I found out what it was, the doctor told me there was a very good chance I'd never play hockey again," he said. "I'd thought it was the flu or some virus. So when I had to spend time in a hospital, I did a lot of soul-searching, to see what else I would want to do."

What else Houston wanted to do was more of the same. "I felt I could probably come back, but then, I knew nothing about hepatitis at the time," he said. But with medication -- "which took away my strength" -- the disease was controlled to the point where Houston was able to skate again.

"If I felt strong enough, I'd go to practice, and if I felt like skating, fine," he said. "The Flames (who moved to Calgary before the 1980-81 season) were unbelievably good about it."

Eventually, Houston was able to work his way back into the lineup, after missing the first 35 games of that year. "Even then, it was only on a part-time basis," he said. "They'd rest me out of long road trips."

Houston remained on medication throughout. "It was a kind of muscle deterioration pill that just drains you," he said. "You can't concentrate with that kind of medication, especially during a hectic schedule, and with the kind of game I'm supposed to be playing."

When the Flames met the Minnesota North Stars in the playoffs, "the team played them while I went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester," he said. "Our team doctor knew a liver specialist there. He was very honest: he didn't think I should be playing hockey with the problem I had. But I did have a good playoff (seven goals, eight assists in 16 games) and I guess I wanted to prove to myself and the doctors that I could play hockey."

Houston was weaned from the medication, and has had periodic checkups to determine whether the illness is under control. After his last examination, in October when the Capitals were in Toronto, "the doctor said things were fine, there is nothing to worry about and there is no need to go back to medication," Houston said. "I'll have another test, probably in February."

Since contracting hepatitis and becoming all too familiar with liver biopsies, Houston has become involved with the Canadian Liver Foundation. "Just in a small way," he said. "I knew nothing about this before and now people write to me about their problems. I make calls, talk to them. There's one family that has a 13-year-old daughter with a very bad problem. I've been to supper at their house.

"Maybe it makes people feel good to see that a hockey player who's had this has been able to get back," he said.

Poile thinks the way Houston has played in Washington is no comparison to his performance the last two years for the Flames. "This affected him a lot," Poile said. "It was not only a physically limiting illness, but one that worked on his mind as well."

But Poile is pleased by the recovered Houston. "He's part of the new personality of the club. He's a veteran player, so he knows I expect something more from him. And the guy has always made the playoffs, every year of his career. I'm hoping that means something."