He hadn't been in Washington in more than three years, and the last time Dave Christian was here, he saw only the back lawn of the White House.

"There wasn't much time to see anything else," he said at yesterday's first informal practice for the Capitals at Mount Vernon sports complex. "We came in that morning and were gone by afternoon." Christian and his 1980 gold medal-winning Olympic teammates had been whisked in and out of town for a presidential handshake in February 1980, but now he is settling in as a Capital and plans to check out the neighborhood.

"It's a lot different than Winnipeg," he understated.

He should know. Christian, a Minnesota native, went to the Winnipeg Jets right after the Lake Placid triumph, playing center and serving as captain for two seasons. But as a U.S. citizen playing in Canada, Christian felt the financial crunch of the high dollar exhange ("at least 22-23 percent") and was determined to play for a U.S.-based team this season.

"There was very little chance I'd be playing in Winnipeg this season," he said with a smile after skating with a few Washington teammates for the first time. "I would have become a free agent on July 1 and would have shopped around for a team."

He didn't even have to go shopping. On the day of the NHL's amateur draft in June, Capitals General Manager David Poile dealt Washington's first-round pick to the Jets and got Christian in return.

"Our position on the draft was this: we had X number of guys on our list, and if one of them was available when our turn came, we'd get him," Poile said.

The Capitals, drafting eighth, saw all of their potential picks go quickly, and Poile opted instead for a deal he had discussed earlier with Winnipeg General Manager John Ferguson.

"Drafting in the first round is the way you build your team, but in this case, what we would've gotten was an 18-year-old possibility," Poile said. "Instead we got a 24-year-old guy in his prime, a guy who's so flexible he fits the mold of player we want here.

"And the financial situation helped. Just like the Montreal players last year (Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin). It was a factor that worked in our favor."

Christian was equally pleased at the deal. "I was kind of waiting for something (like that) to happen, and I figured it might," he said. "No, I didn't really follow Washington last year, but I was aware they had made a big change."

But this year, Christian said, the expectations Washington faces will be greater. "Once people see a little bit, and are prepared for a winner, they expect more of you, and you do of yourself."

His own role on the Capitals, he said, will depend on getting used to the new situation. "This is the first time I've met these guys," he said yesterday, "and already I have a little better idea." He met Coach Bryan Murray for the first time when Christian came off the ice after the informal practice, although he had spoken to him on the phone after the June trade.

Murray talked to Christian only briefly, but Poile tentatively outlined the duties for the newest Capital.

"(In spite of) the shortness on the left side, our first plan is to use him at center ice. Dave can skate on the power play and kill penalties; in an emergency, he could be shifted to defenseman; he's aggressive on faceoffs, like Doug Jarvis. On penalty killing, Bryan could send out both Dave and Jarvis and even if one of them gets thrown out (of the faceoff circle), we'd still have the other one in to win it," Poile said.

Last season, despite a shoulder injury that limited him to only 55 games, "Christian was still consistently close to a point a game (18 goals, 26 assists, 44 points). And I think a 30-goal, 90-point year is not out of the question for him, particularly with the type of guys he's playing with here. He is very much at home already."

Christian has not quite found a place to call home, at least not yet, although he and his wife are staying in Alexandria right now. "I know I'll be happier living here than in Winnipeg," he said. "It wasn't really a place I would want to live when I'm finished with hockey, either. Not many opportunities."

Like the other 1980 Olympic hockey players, Christian still is asked about the experience of beating the Soviets and winning the gold. "I haven't looked at the tapes of the games in a long, long time," he said. "But the Capitals play an exhibition with the U.S. Olympic team this year, and a couple guys I know are on the team. It'll be interesting to see it from the other side this time."

The informal practice sessions will continue at the Capitals' new practice facility, the Mount Vernon sports complex, south of Alexandria, until the team leaves for training camp in Hershey, Pa., Sept. 10.