In their 11th winter, the Washington Capitals have found their niche. They might never be as popular as the Redskins, and they know it. Celebrities probably won't flock to be at their side. Their season tickets may never be written into a will.

But they are in Washington, and they are winning. And they're also attracting a different crowd than in the early years of the franchise.

There is an increasing number of pin-striped, buttoned-down, briefcased professionals who empty out of law firms on Connecticut Avenue and congregate at the ice rink in Landover. By and large, they are not fair-weather fans. The game discourages nonchalance. Becoming a hockey fan takes too much work. Blue lines, offsides, icing . . .

And brought out in record numbers by winning, these fans are likely to stick around.

Hockey, after all, was made for Yuppies.

"Izods and docksiders," said long-time season-ticket holder Ken Duberstein, President Reagan's former assistant for legislative affairs who now is a partner in the government relations firm of Timmons and Co., Inc.

"That's what you see at the Capital Centre now. It's really become the in place. When people stop talking about the Redskins around town, you find they start talking about the Capitals."

Everyone loves a winner, particularly everyone in Washington. The Capitals are tied for second place in the overall National Hockey League standings. Enough said?

"It's a very victory-oriented city," Duberstein said.

"The crowd is blue-collar Prince George's to Yuppie Virginia," said Larry King, the late-night national radio host who rarely, if ever, misses a game. "When you think about it, hockey is a Yuppie sport. It's high-priced, white and you can bring a date."

During two games last season, the Capitals conducted a survey. Twenty-two percent of their fans came from Montgomery County; 23 percent from Prince George's; 39 percent from Northern Virginia; 11 percent from Annapolis and Baltimore; and only 5 percent from the District.

The fans were mostly white, extremely well-educated, and well on their way to lifetime financial security. All but 18 percent had gone past high school, 37 percent had undergraduate degrees and 25 percent had postgraduate degrees.

Two out of three made more than $30,000 a year, and three in 10 earned more than $55,000. Presumably, they tip at the beer stands.

Naturally, the Capitals' management is eating this up.

"It's taken 11 years because of the heavy Southern influence," said Lew Strudler, the club's marketing director. "We have so many people here from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma . . . they've never seen hockey. Now, it's all turned around. The Caps game is the place to be.

"A few years ago, 15-20 of the top 150 corporations in the area bought season tickets. Now, 75-80 have them."

This is a team well-suited to its environment. If you liked the Bicentennial, you'll love the Capitals; red, white and blue all over, even if most of the players are Canadian.

Yet, three of the Capitals' superstars -- Rod Langway, Bobby Carpenter and Dave Christian, one of the 1980 U.S. Olympians -- were born in the United States, something no other NHL team anchored south of the Canadian border can boast.

"The Washington sports fan loves to watch a team hustling its butt off," Duberstein said. "Then, you have to consider the number of Americans on the team. No wonder it's so popular."

It's not so popular among the black community. Angie Brinson, 21, works part-time selling beer for all Capital Centre events. Once, during a slow night at a hockey game, Brinson, who is black, decided to count the number of black people who walked by her.

"About 10," she said. "It was strange. One thing I've always wondered about is why black people don't come to hockey games."

Gerard Severin, an accountant for the Marriott Corp., was leading his three sons into the stands the other night. He is from Haiti and is black. As they walked through the crowd, 10-year-old Stanley looked up and asked him why everyone he saw was white.

"You wonder sometimes," Severin said. "It bothers me, I guess. It's just that blacks don't play hockey. They don't have access to rinks and skates."

Not all that long ago, Lynn Cozzi could sneak down from the rafters to the expensive seats at the Capital Centre, guzzle the beer he and his pals carried in by the case and swear at the Capitals, whom, he figured, deserved to be sworn at.

Often, it got pretty raunchy. "There were no kids or parents around," he said. "We just raised hell."

Cozzi, 23, who sells fan belts and mufflers in Bethesda to pay for the two season tickets he buys every year, comes to the games wearing a dirty Senators jacket, with a moustache and a huge stomach. He is a hockey fan.

When the Capitals were bad, he was awful, and it was fun.

But now they're good, and nothing's the same any more.

He might as well be welded to the cheap seats, except when he brings Bill Whaley, his buddy with the bum leg. Since there are few empty seats to move to, they tell Guest Services that Bill can't climb stairs very well and, in sympathy, get two folding chairs close to the ice.

"It's a good deal," Cozzi said.

He also can't swear any more. "Not with all these kids and their parents from the suburbs around. You've gotta watch your mouth."

Ten years ago, when the Capitals won eight games in their first season, an average of about 10,000 curious people showed up to watch. And swear.

This season, in which the Capitals won their eighth game before the Redskins clinched a spot in the playoffs, an average of almost 14,000 people have shown up to watch. And cheer.

Cheering draws a different crowd.

"There used to be crowds no larger than 5,500 some nights, all the beer-drinking types, who came during rain and snow," Duberstein said. "In those first years, the team had so many clowns that the people had to stand and root for fights.

"Now, an awful lot of people stay seated during fights. People are more likely to stand when the Caps score a goal."


The Capitals, who are averaging 2,600 more fans per game this season than a year ago at this time, figure exposure breeds knowledge.

"The fans used to give us a standing ovation for killing a penalty," said Mike Gartner, in his sixth season as a Capital. "I'm serious. They stood up and applauded. Now, they know and expect so much more, which means we have to do so much more."

Hockey is one tough game for the novice to understand.

"They were always stopping the game. I didn't know what was going on," said George Coleman of Silver Spring, who grew up in Birmingham and saw his first Capitals game two years ago. "I got tired of asking the guy next to me what was going on."

Coleman, a retired engineer and Navy man, and his wife Geneva, who is from Hawaii and still takes a transistor radio to games, fell in love with the sport. They bought season tickets -- and some hockey rule books.

"It's the sport I'll spend money for," Coleman said.

It's a sport that will gladly take your money. Most people will die before they get their hands on Redskins season tickets. Most people could buy Capitals season tickets in the next 10 minutes. Strudler estimates season ticket sales are almost 6,300.

"We wanted to root for something besides the Redskins," said Ted Aronow, vice president of a wholesale liquor firm in the District and patriarch of a hockey family. "This was perfect."

The Capitals have noticed.

"I'd look into the crowd two years ago and all I would see was Redskin jerseys," said defenseman Scott Stevens, the heartthrob of fan clubs. "Now, it's hockey jerseys. It's a nice feeling."

Generally, the jersey-wearers are your more high-strung fans. They still exist; the Yuppies haven't pushed them out. Take Chris and Jennifer Gama. Chris wears No. 33: "Scott Stevens' number (3) twice," he said. "Double trouble."

Jennifer wears No. 15, for Alan Haworth, whom she believes does not get enough publicity.

The Gamas sit near the ice, behind the goalie, the better to see the mayhem.

High above them, in the top row of the arena, one finds the new Capitals fans.

"Come on Langway, get the puck out of there, you Yuppie!"

"Hey, who taught you guys how to pass? Flutie?"

Words from the mouth of Robert Clark, 30. He is studying to become a priest at Washington Theological Union.

"We're caught up in the spirit," Clark said. He had four friends with him: two priests, two prospective priests.

"I guess you wouldn't expect to find us here, huh?"