Richard Nixon was in the White House the day Abe Pollin summoned the media to Capital Centre, freshly decorated with its first coat of ice, and teasingly waved an envelope that contained the name of his new hockey team.

When Pollin pulled out a paper and dramatically held it aloft, the assemblage read, "Capitals" and reacted with stunned silence, until a Centre employe belatedly led a few colleagues in a round of applause.

If there was little reason to cheer that day, there wasn't much in the eight years that followed, either, as hockey players came and went through the revolving door in Landover. Some, like Rod Seiling and Alex Forsyth, departed after one game; others, like Yvon Labre and Guy Charron and Ryan Walter, stayed for what seemed like several lifetimes.

Brave slogans accompanied them, like "Off the Floor in Year Four" and "We'll Come Alive in Year Five," but it is only this week, in the aftermath of a divine Year Nine, that the Centre finally will serve as host to a Stanley Cup playoff game.

"It's nice, and the fans deserve it, but it's too bad that some of us young guys got old too soon to be part of it," Charron said the other day when he returned from a second season in Switzerland to visit past acquaintances at the rink where he once toiled as "The Franchise."

A lot of people cultivated gray hairs trying to accomplish what David Poile and Bryan Murray and Rod Langway and friends have managed to achieve. Most of them left feeling like Sisyphus, having tried to push a hockey puck over the top of the hill and never quite making it.

Milt Schmidt, the Capitals' first general manager, was unable to get the puck rolling at all. Schmidt, a Hall of Fame center with Boston, was 56 when he surveyed his first Washington skaters, but he insisted he could still play better than most of them. Nobody was prepared to argue with him.

"Mr. Pollin paid $6 million for the franchise and there wasn't one major-league player made available," recalled Schmidt, now a host in a Boston Garden club. "I said when I got there it would probably take five years to be a contending team. There wasn't any kind of a nucleus. If you had four or five guys as a nucleus it wouldn't be so bad, but the players we got originally, nobody wanted them.

"The players gave their best, but they didn't have it and they realized it. I couldn't improve the team. When you're down, nobody will help you. Nobody in the NHL gives a damn for you. Starting at scratch, you have to rely on draft choices and hope to get lucky in a trade. But before you can make a trade, you have to have somebody that somebody else wants.

"I got lucky in Boston when I got (Phil) Esposito, (Ken) Hodge and (Fred) Stanfield from Chicago. David Poile made the deal with Montreal and finally turned the corner. I think it's great for the fans and life will be more pleasant for a lot of people, including Mr. Pollin. He's been having a rough time, but he's had the patience to stay with it. The Capitals are a young team and they should have a winner for several years."

Schmidt was able to swing one deal in his first year, rescuing Stan Gilbertson and Ace Bailey from the St. Louis Blues' doghouse. They played on a line with Tommy Williams and in a season-ending 8-4 victory over Pittsburgh Gilbertson scored four goals, at that time an NHL record for an American-born player.

"I'd been playing at Denver in the Central League, so coming to Washington was a new lease on life for me, even though I knew the team hadn't done well and probably wouldn't for a long time to come," said Gilbertson, now a realtor in San Ramon, Calif.

"It was tough going to the rink sometimes and we knew we had to play an exceptional game every night to have a chance to win, but that's what we were paid for. I didn't mind it as much as some, because I was able to play with Tommy Williams. He had been my idol growing up in Duluth, Minn., and it was fulfilling in that regard."

Red Sullivan served as the team's chief scout for the first five seasons and even filled in as coach for 19 games, making his mark on the frustration meter with the longest water-bottle throw in the Centre's history. Now working with the NHL's Central Scouting System, Sullivan readily accepted some of the blame for the Capitals' lengthy stay in the doldrums.

"Our draft choices didn't pan out the way we thought they would and that's the key. It's as simple as that," Sullivan said. "Not a hell of a lot was made available in the expansion draft, so we had to count on the kids, like (Greg) Joly and (Mike) Marson, but they didn't work out. In a situation like we were in, we couldn't afford not to have them pan out.

"I'm very happy for the whole organization that they're in the playoffs now. I've always felt that Washington would be a good NHL city, given a contender. The building is second to none in the NHL. I give Poile a lot of marks. It took some doing to make that trade he did. He gave up two good players, but he got good ones back.

"The guy I'm happiest for is Yvon Labre. He's the only one still connected with the club who was there at the start. When I was with the Washington Capitals, he was always a credit to the organization. If we'd had 14 or 15 guys with his heart, it would have been a different story."

Labre, whose No. 7 hangs from the Capital Centre rafters, now serves as the team's director of community relations and chief cheerleader. Labre gave 100 percent for seven difficult seasons before a knee injury forced him to retire.

"I feel good about the playoffs, especially because the team isn't just content to be there, but is fighting for seventh or eighth place overall (it finished eighth)," Labre said. "You're talking about a 30-point improvement.

"A lot of it is Bryan Murray. He said a coach is worth only a few points a season, but he's responsible for making the guys play so well.

"And Rod Langway and Brian Engblom deserve credit for the way they've helped Scott Stevens along. Thank God Scott had those guys or maybe he'd have been buried in a negative atmosphere like so many others were. I've enjoyed watching Scott. He's been a big surprise and he's a tough kind of character.

"We had a lot of tough times, but the worst year I can remember was (1981) when we won our last game and got knocked out a half hour later when Toronto beat Quebec. Then last year we were in the top 16 teams, but they'd changed the format and Los Angeles got in with fewer points than we had. I said, 'How many times is this going to happen?' It was unbelievable.

"Now that's in the past and if the guys pay the price against the Islanders like they did against Boston, it should be a heck of a series. I was as up for the Boston game as the guys on the ice and every time Mike Gartner scored I was jumping up yelling. My wife finally told me to sit down."

The Capitals' 8-67-5 record of their first season established an all-time NHL low. The team was 3-28-5 the next midseason when Max McNab and Tom McVie moved in and began the slow climb to respectability. McNab, now the director of hockey operations for the New Jersey Devils, stayed almost six years as general manager; McVie, present coach of the American Hockey League's Maine Mariners, guided the Capitals for 2 1/2 seasons.

"I used to convince the guys in Washington we were going to win when it wasn't true," McVie said. "Even if we played as well as we could, we'd lose by four goals.

"It was hell. I probably should have had six nervous breakdowns while I was there, but I was too dumb to realize it. One thing, though. All the hell people put me through in Washington and in Winnipeg, where we had a championship team taken away by the merger, has made me a better man. I don't get discouraged very easily any more.

"I hope the Caps do well. It's been a long time coming and it should stir up some excitement there. I had some difficult times, but I guess I came out of it a lot better off than a lot of people. I've got a job and my sanity."

"I'm sure the Capitals' records for coming close will never be broken," McNab said. "Missing by one game two years in a row made it pretty near impossible the next year to get them together mentally. If we could have gotten the monkey off our back of cracking the playoffs, I think it would have given everybody a different outlook. But it was always a cross we had to bear.

"We accumulated some pretty good talent, but the playoffs became an obsession, we talked about it so much."

For Charron, unlike the Capitals, the playoffs proved unattainable. When his NHL career ended after 734 games, it left him in the record book as the man who played the most games without playoff participation in NHL history. Nevertheless, Charron said that was not as hard to take as the Capitals' decision to pay him off in 1981.

"It was a tragedy two years ago when I was told I couldn't play any more," Charron said. "It was like being knocked down by somebody in the stands and I couldn't get up. There were a lot of times when I was sitting out that I thought I could help. It was good for me to be able to go to Switzerland and play, not stay in this environment and watch the games.

"Not ever being in the playoffs goes through my mind sometimes, but I can't complain. I had 12 years in the NHL and there are a lot of young guys who can't look forward to that. Marcel Dionne said he'd like to be on a team with a shot at the Stanley Cup. He's one of the great ones, so who am I to talk? At least I got to play in a few World Championships for Canada."

Walter, the driving force on those Capitals clubs that came so close, finally will appear in his first playoff, but he has learned that in Montreal, just making the playoffs is not enough. Only winning the cup is sufficient to satisfy the fans.

"It's a lot different from Washington, because they expect you to win every game," Walter said. "We'll probably finish fifth overall in the league (they did) and a lot of places you figure that's not bad. But here they say that's terrible. I think that can be positive. When they expect so much, you give a little more.

"I'm glad the Capitals are doing so well. They've got confidence now and they don't give up anything. Washington deserves a winner after all those years of struggling."