School and books and lessons never were high on Jim McGeough's priority list. Ever since he first skated on a pond in his Regina, Saskatchewan, backyard at age 3, his primary interest has been hockey.

McGeough's great speed and adroit scoring touch have made him an offensive standout at every level on the way to the sport's top rung. Now, as the newest member of the Washington Capitals, McGeough finds himself a student once again.

The teachers are Coach Bryan Murray and teammate Doug Jarvis, and the subject is defense. As far as McGeough is concerned, it is the most important class of his life.

"I played junior in the Western League, which was a really offensive league, and my job was to score goals," he said. "The offense was all I worried about. That can hurt your defensive game and you can pick up bad habits.

"Now I'm with a club that's defense-oriented and I have to bear down or I'll struggle. I have to improve my defensive game if I want to stay here."

Serving to make McGeough's studies more difficult is a concurrent shift to the more restrictive duties of a left wing, after a career as a freewheeling center.

"At center, I would roam all day and score whenever I wanted," he said. "I have to be more disciplined on left wing. For a while, in the exhibitions, I was all over the ice on left wing, but I'm getting more and more used to it.

"I guess there have been questions whether I could make the switch. I had some doubts in camp, when there were seven guys going for the four left-wing spots. I consider myself lucky to make the squad and I'm going to do whatever I can to stay here."

McGeough, 21, has benefited from the patience of Murray, who has overlooked a number of shortcomings because he sees great potential in the 5-foot-9, 170-pound player he coached briefly at Regina in 1980.

"I just like the talent I see," Murray said. "He's a strong kid -- strong mentally and strong physically. And he has that great speed.

"When he was in junior, I saw him play in an all-star game in Calgary. He was on one team and the Sutters were on another. He had 15 shots and three goals and was the star of the game. Now everybody said the Sutters would play in the NHL. So why not him?

"As a left wing, he's a little short in our end. He lets up on occasion, which is typical of a junior player, because defensive play in junior is not that important. We let him freewheel offensively, but he can't let up defensively. He's got to improve."

Murray did not show such patience the first time McGeough played for the Capitals. It was November 1981, Murray had just become the coach and he and Roger Crozier decided to take a look at everyone in the organization.

McGeough played four games, his speed brought him to the fans' attention and then, one night in Minnesota, he and veteran Pat Ribble went out to enjoy the night life. Before the sun was up, McGeough was on his way back to Billings, Mont., and Ribble was headed home, to be traded to Calgary two days later.

"I think Jim became more aware of what it would take to be a Capital," Murray said.

Despite goal-scoring figures that read 50-93-77-40 over the last four years, McGeough's path to Washington has not been without detours.

After winning the Saskatchewan Junior League (Tier Two) scoring title with the Regina Pat Blues in 1979-80, McGeough was summoned to help the parent Regina Pats, coached by Murray, in their Memorial Cup bid. He played well and looked forward to a pleasant junior career in his home town.

Four games into the next season, with Murray gone to Hershey, McGeough was traded to Billings for three players. It took some adjusting.

"I had been in school, but after the trade there just wasn't any way to finish," McGeough said. "There wasn't one person in regular school in Billings, because of the travel. They put us in night school, and even that was tough.

"But we were all in the same boat and we got used to it. We'd travel 10 hours and play, and travel again and play. Everybody found a way to amuse himself on the bus. We were together a lot and we became pretty close."

Bob Strumm, the Regina general manager who had traded McGeough, was working as a Washington scout. He was at the Capitals' draft table in Montreal when McGeough's name came up. Surprisingly, Strumm recommended him.

"Jimmy was not popular because everybody felt he was a one-dimensional hockey player, just a good scorer at the junior level with speed," Murray recalled. "But Bob Strumm said we ought to take a shot at him, because with the proper coaching and discipline he had the potential to be a good one.

"I think Bob traded him to get him away from the home town situation. Probably because he wasn't interested in school, Jim had a reputation as being a little wild. But he was mischievous more than harmful."

McGeough led the Western League with 93 goals in 1981-82, then the Billings franchise moved to Nanaimo, B.C. The change of scenery had little effect on McGeough's scoring, as he totaled 76 goals.

Last season, he scored 40 for a Hershey team that was undermanned because of recall and injury, and was virtually out of playoff contention by January.

Seemingly a long shot in a Washington camp full of veterans of the last successful season, McGeough forced management to notice him by getting four goals and five assists in the preseason. That earned a share of the team scoring lead.

Adding to McGeough's motivation was getting married Aug. 1, which helped convince General Manager David Poile that he was ready to settle down.

Sunday in Chicago, he scored his first NHL goal in spectacular fashion, threading the puck between the legs of a challenging goaltender while a defensemen was pulling him down. It was the kind of instinctive move that needs no lessons.

Poile discussed left wing Charlie Simmer with Los Angeles General Manager Rogie Vachon, but got no closer to a deal than he had in numerous phone calls over the last month.

"We never got down to specifics," Poile said. "They're on a road trip and he indicated he wants to look at several players on other teams."