When Abe Pollin obtained a National Hockey League franchise in 1972, his aim was to fill enough dates to make viable the construction of Capital Centre as a showcase for his National Basketball Association team, the Bullets.

Today, while the one-time NBA champions struggle to rise above mediocrity in the standings and at the box office, the Capitals fill the Centre's seats and inspire dreams of a victory parade.

"The town is turned on to the Capitals more and more," Pollin said. "If we do what we're capable of doing in the playoffs, we'll take a major step forward. I'd like to see all the seats full now, but we have made strides every year in the last four, and significant strides as far as paid attendance.

"Three or four years ago, if somebody told me the paid attendance we'd projected for this year, I'd have said they were nuts."

Eight seasons without a playoff berth in a league that makes postseason play as easy as putting on skates had eroded fan interest and caused Pollin to beg the community for help via a "Save the Caps" campaign.

A reduced county tax and guaranteed sellouts by local businesses helped the situation, but when Pollin vowed at the campaign's conclusion to continue, season ticket sales were a mere 4,583, rather than the goal of 7,500.

Today that figure has topped 7,000, highest in the club's history, and more than 6,000 partial plans also have been sold. By purchasing additional tickets, those 13,000 bought out the Edmonton game on Feb. 8 without a public sale.

The fan interest has been generated through achievement on the ice. The Capitals have ranked among the NHL's top six teams for three years and only an inability to beat the New York Islanders in playoff competition has dimmed the push forward.

"I'm very much satisfied with our progress," Pollin said. "We have a very, very professional organization, starting with Dick Patrick as the president. David Poile, Bryan Murray and Lew Strudler have done outstanding jobs and the team has been great.

"I poured many, many millions into this team (losses totaled $22.8 million by June 1984, according to Capitals officials), but in the early years I never had the right combination. I'm not a quitter and I started learning about hockey myself and learned the right people to choose.

"Basketball was always my first love and I knew little about hockey. But I enjoy watching hockey. It's an exciting, fast and beautiful sport. I now like hockey as much as basketball."

Pollin took the first big step toward success when he cited a "gut feeling" and chose Murray over Don Cherry to replace Gary Green as coach in November 1981. The following summer he added Patrick as executive vice president, Poile as general manager and Strudler as marketing director.

Poile's first big move was a blockbuster trade with Montreal on Sept. 10, 1982 that brought Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin to Washington in exchange for Ryan Walter and Rick Green.

"At first, I was hesitant to give up Ryan Walter, because he was the heart and guts of the team," Pollin said. "But David Poile convinced me that we had to make major changes.

"Having been in sports as many years as I have, you don't expect miracles, but you still hope for them. That trade turned the team around."

Although Poile never doubted his ability to get the franchise moving, he admitted that when he took the job to as general manager, it was not because he saw great possibilities for immediate upward mobility.

"It never entered my mind that we wouldn't be successful, but I couldn't fathom the team with the personality it had," Poile said. "Every expansion franchise goes through a multitude of GMs, coaches and players for a variety of reasons.

"They had gone for the quick fix, trading futures for short-term players, and then they had to start all over again. But when I came, I never thought things were as bad as people made them out to be.

"The Capitals had some good players, Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter in particular, they had just drafted Scott Stevens and they had Ryan Walter and Rick Green. My expertise in hockey tells me that even the best teams in the NHL have only a half dozen top or star players, and Washington was getting pretty close in that category.

"A couple of trades increased our base from two or three top players to five or six. In addition, we got a lot of role or character players. Compare Bob Kelly (a veteran 1980 acquisition) and Craig Laughlin. Craig Laughlin has been a very useful, contributing player for four years, a team player and a good character player."

If the Montreal trade was a key move, so was Poile's decision to retain Murray as coach. Under Murray, the Capitals have a 183-118-47 record in a little more than four years. The previous seven coaches won a combined 138 games in seven-plus seasons.

"Bryan Murray had taken a 1-14 team to almost .500 the year before and that in itself was an omen of good things to come," Poile said. "Bryan had a great track record as a tough but fair disciplinarian type of coach, and if there was one thing the Washington Capitals needed, it was discipline.

"Mr. Pollin asked me if I wanted to hire my own coach. I said no and I consider that one of the best decisions I've made on the job."

Despite the temptation to deal away the future for an immediate Stanley Cup chance, Poile since his early splash in the trading marts has opted for stability and long-range planning.

"We know what we want and we know where we're going," Poile said. "We're trying to get there as fast as we can, but we're not mortgaging the future for the present. Most of the people in the organization want to be here as long as possible, so we're working not for today but for the long run."

Murray, regarded as an astute judge of young talent himself, is pleased with the players personnel director Jack Button and assistant Sam McMaster have lined up.

"I feel good about the depth in the organization," Murray said. "I feel good about being able to replace up to five guys in the next two or three years. That's what depth is all about. I want to win the Stanley Cup this year and if we don't win it this year, I want to win it next year. Regardless, this hockey team should be in the top three, four or five for the next 10 years."

Meanwhile, Strudler continues an aggressive marketing approach to fill the seats. Poile said Strudler is "determined, as I am, to some day get the building sold out for every home game."

Patrick still sees a struggle in that area, although he considers the recent gains remarkable in that they were accompanied by higher ticket prices, as well as a phaseout of discount tickets.

"We made quick progress on the ice, but you can't make a big comeback overnight as far as attendance goes," Patrick said. "Four years ago, our ticket prices were very low, a necessity because of the product. We had to raise prices as well as get more people here just to think about breaking even.

"If the Washington Capitals had gotten off to a strong start in the early years, it would be a sellout situation now. But there is no reason to buy a season ticket except to guarantee a place and that has not been necessary here."

Including tonight's sellout against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals' average attendance is 13,768. If the team can remain in contention for first place, last year's record of 14,008 should be surpassed with ease. There even is hope among Capitals officials of a first-ever profit, depending on how long the team survives in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And despite the team's difficulty in beating the Flyers, confidence abounds that Washington can do well in the playoffs.

"The Flyers game (a 4-0 loss) last week was a letdown," Pollin said. "Our guys were too tight. That wasn't a typical Washington Capitals game and I don't expect to see that any more.

"I think we're capable of beating them and I think we will beat them, in the regular season or the playoffs. When we beat them in the playoffs two years ago, it was a high point to reach the second round. But it's not something we'll continue to accept. We have the material and organization to make a run at the (Stanley) Cup."