I apologized to a Capitals official for putting the toughest player in the National Hockey League flat on his back, but somebody has to ask the hard-hitting questions.

"Excuse me, I must go lie down," Scott Stevens had said moments before. The question that may have swept him off his feet was: "Could you elaborate on hip checking?"

Or something equally incisive and penetrating. In an instant, Stevens was in the training room. Supine.

Jealous colleagues suggest my hockey style usually is more Ted Baxter than Ted Koppel, and I admit that when one of the other puck-chasers in the press box says "crease," I might glance at his trousers.

Still, calling Stevens the toughest player in the NHL is not hasty whimsy from a muddled mind. A chorus of general managers, coaches and other players sing of his sweet stings.

A survey by the magazine Goal revealed that the Capitals' 21-year-old defenseman was tops in three of the most manly categories: hardest hitter, best hitter in open ice and toughest player (all-around).

His was a landslide margin in two of the areas. He won hardest hitter by 23 points over Mark Messier of the Oilers and toughest player by 15 points over Al Secord of the Blackhawks.

Messier was only three points shy of the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Stevens for best hitter in open ice. This may be because Stevens takes hip checking seriously in practice but not to the point of taking casualties.

"He doesn't finish you off," teammate Mike Gartner said. "Anytime beyond the blueline, you know that Scott Stevens in a real game would send you up into the nickel seats.

"But in practice he'll grab you, not hurt you."

The Goal poll did not say Stevens was the best defenseman in the league. The Capitals' Rod Langway won that distinction. Somebody named Gretzky won just about everything else, so the poll must have been legitimate.

Stevens also was distinguished by not finishing anywhere near the top of another survey. Sports Illustrated did not include him among a collection of meanies it called "The Goon Squad."

So it can accurately -- and loudly -- be said of Stevens: tough but fair; a hitter but not a killer. Could anyone ask more from an athlete?

The Sports Illustrated piece quoted one of the NHL's supervisors of officials as saying: "Goon hockey is back."

I hadn't realized it was gone.

Anyway, the story body-checked NHL President John Ziegler for being soft on such players as Torrie Robertson of Hartford, who had 32 fighting penalties and 33 points in his first 53 games, and Joey Kocur of the Red Wings, who had seven points and 244 penalty minutes in 36 games.

Capitals General Manager David Poile was quoted as saying the team had hired a goon of its own, Dwight Schofield, "to keep Scott Stevens and Rod Langway, who we need on the ice, from having to fight guys like [Dave] Brown and [Rick] Tocchet [of the Flyers]."

One might reasonably ask: What's the difference between a tough guy and a goon? In other areas of life, the distinction is easier to spot. John Wayne was tough; John Ireland was a goon. Robin Roberts was tough; Sal Maglie was mean.

And so on.

But what of men paid well to swing sticks?

"A goon goes out there just to fight," said the Capitals' Alan Haworth. "Scott won't back down from anyone, or even a brick wall. But he will receive a fair check and let it go."

"I've never seen him lose a fight," Gartner said. "Every check he tries to make as hard as he can. And if you've nailed him good, you'd better keep your head up next time near the boards."

There's fightin' and there's fightin' in hockey, and Stevens has done it all. Once he fought to gain a reputation; now he fights a tendency to be provoked into fighting.

"He's making a conscious effort to control that power," said Gartner, "to direct it toward the positive instead of the negative. He's got a little ways to go. He'll be the first to tell you that."

In baseball, Stevens would be the plate-blocking catcher. Or the homer-happy right fielder who guns down rabbits trying to go from first to third on a single.

In football, Stevens would charge toward the line from his strong safety position and wrap those thick arms around the fullback for no gain.

"He puts a stick on you, or a hand on you, and you don't go very far," Coach Bryan Murray said.

"Now he's learning that that's enough. Even if someone got on him verbally earlier in his career , he'd respond with his fists ."

That got him slinking toward the penalty box, where he could only benefit the opposition.

In 53 games this season, Stevens has 122 penalty minutes, compared with goony-bird Robertson's 313 minutes in 62 games.

Schofield has three more penalty minutes than Stevens in 15 fewer games.

"The last time Philly was here," Murray said, "one of their tough guys went after him Stevens and he skated away.

"I think the other guy got two minutes for delay. That made a big impression on our guys."

Not long after the overtime victory over the Red Wings Tuesday, Stevens had said, "My game is a lot of open-ice hits." Yes, he had seen the flattering poll and been pleased.

Stevens explained that he tries for one cruncher of a hip check each game. Serious interrogation was about to take place. Questions Stevens surely had never heard in his life would be popping toward a face marked by stubble and a scar near his left eye.

All of a sudden, he turned and fled.

Couldn't take it, eh?

A spokesman said Stevens had appeared light-headed earlier.

Maybe.

Through a crack in the door, I could see Murray talking with his fallen star. Should I barge in and continue the assault? Would Cosell back off? Would Les Nessman?

I thought of what Murray had said earlier about Stevens, how he was learning to rein in his natural instincts. I thought about tough guys and goons.

I walked away.