The annual Santa Claus Parade will be held here Saturday. Some folks who take a dim view of northern Ontario winters say Santa has only to walk across the street to take part.

One such critic is right wing Mark LaVarre, who played for the junior North Bay Centennials last season and demanded to be traded this fall. To get to North Bay, LaVarre said, "You turn right at the North Pole."

LaVarre, now a happy member of the Windsor Spitfires, returned to North Bay for the first time Thursday. He found that one of his opponents on the home town Centennials was Kevin Hatcher, the 6-foot-3 1/2 defenseman who was the first draft pick of the Washington Capitals and stayed with the NHL club until opening day.

When Hatcher returned to North Bay -- a city of 51,000 located 210 miles north of Toronto -- it was with mixed feelings, and his play suffered for a time. That is in the past, however, and two items reflect Hatcher's current level of competence.

When the Centennials beat Windsor, 5-2, it was their ninth straight victory, a franchise record. At one end of Memorial Gardens, where the Molson Cup three-star point standings are displayed, the first listing was "K. Hatcher . . . 30."

"The last five games, I've been playing real well," Hatcher said. "I've had four stars and 11 points. We can beat any team in this league as long as we play together. If we don't, we'll get killed.

"I had a slow start when I first came back. I don't know what it is, but it seems to happen to everybody who comes back from the NHL.

"I was a little bit upset, but Washington thought it was best, so what can I say? When I got here, nobody made fun of me about it. Some guys said they didn't think I'd be back and some said they were glad to have me back. It made me feel good and I got rid of my disappointment pretty quick."

Another who had some doubts about the move was Washington Coach Bryan Murray. Asked the other day if he regretted Hatcher's departure, considering the Capitals' recent defensive problems, Murray shot back, "Yes." Then he added, "But ice time is important to Kevin and he's getting a lot. If we want him to be a quality player, in the long run the extra time in junior will be beneficial."

Bert Templeton, the North Bay coach, was delighted to get Hatcher back. But he realizes that there is little hope of similar largesse next fall, although Hatcher's age (18) gives him further junior eligibility.

"Kevin is playing well and he's a class example for the younger guys," Templeton said. "He's improving all the time and sending him back here should pay big dividends for Washington.

"They made a hell of a draft getting him in that position (17th), and with the experience he gets here, he should step in next year and do a job for them, just as though he's been there.

"He's providing leadership and he's on the ice in a lot of pressure situations. It's a chance for him to mature. So many NHL clubs take the kids up too early and ruin them. But Washington is letting him develop and it's good for everybody to do it that way."

Washington's assistant coach, Terry Murray, watched Hatcher here Thursday as well as Tuesday in a 4-3 victory at Oshawa. He feels Hatcher has improved considerably since training camp.

"He's working hard at the game and he's getting a lot of ice time," Murray said. "He runs the power play, he kills penalties and he's their main guy on defense. That's what we wanted -- for him to really get involved in things.

"He has some things to work on. We'd like to see him be more aggressive and take the man out with more authority. But that will come. He has natural talent and there's a lot to work with. He has quickness and speed, he goes after the puck decisively and his intensity is very good. He makes things happen."

Although Hatcher was not thrilled to return to North Bay, he is attempting to make the best of it. If LaVarre felt he was stuck at the end of the world, Hatcher rationalizes that if there are few distractions, at least he can concentrate on the business at hand.

"There isn't much here except hockey," said Hatcher, who is from Detroit. "Once winter comes, there's ice fishing, and there's bowling and movies. But hockey takes up my time. When I'm not playing it, I read about it. I follow the Caps pretty much and I'm curious about how the guys are playing, particularly the defense.

"I came to Canada to play junior, because I figured it was the quickest way to the NHL, and I haven't changed my mind about that."

As Hatcher finished talking, a giggling teen-aged girl approached him, watched by a giggling group of friends.

"I'm kind of embarrassed to ask, but could I have your autograph?" she said.

Hatcher smiled, put her at ease with some well-chosen words and signed his name. If he is a world away from Washington, it nevertheless is apparent that a lot of people care about Kevin Hatcher.