Hockey practice had begun. Slowly, Bengt Gustafsson pulled himself into the stands, one crutch at a time. Several rows up, he stopped, balanced on his good leg, dropped a stack of multicolored envelopes on the row in front of him and sat down hard.

"Fan mail?" he was asked.

He shook his head.

"Get well cards," he said. "They're nice, but no one wants to get too many of them."

Gustafsson has played hockey for the Washington Capitals for seven seasons. No one has been with the team longer. In his rookie year, the Capitals lost 13 more games than they won. Those were hard times. It took four years before he played on a winning team.

Obviously, Gustafsson, 28, has waited a long time for his team to have its greatest season. Yet all he can do now is sit and watch. His team will win or lose without him.

"I've been thinking about that," Gustafsson said Tuesday at a team practice. "With my luck, my bad luck, we're probably going to go all the way and I'll be here watching.

"But I really can't worry about that. It's great for the team. That's what's important. Maybe I won't be the happiest guy, but I know I was there all year, fighting to help us get to the playoffs. That thought will make me happy."

Nineteen seconds into a March 28 game against the Islanders, New York defenseman Denis Potvin tripped Gustafsson as he skated across the blue line, breaking his right leg just below the knee and ending what had been the left wing's greatest season.

He led the team with 52 assists, scored a club-record four shorthanded goals and still is a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy as the National Hockey League's best defensive forward.

"It was a good season," he said.

Gustafsson's injury has become the second-most publicized break of a right tibia in recent Washington sports history, next to Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's fracture in November.

After the injury, Potvin called Gustafsson to find out how he was and wish him well.

"That shows good class," Gustafsson said. "I don't think he did it intentionally. It just happened. His call made me feel better."

Gustafsson watched the first two playoff games against the Islanders on a television in a lounge near the Capitals' locker room and caught the third at the house he rents in Crofton. He can't sit in the stands because he must keep his leg straight.

"It's difficult to watch because you see so many things," Gustafsson said. "At home, I was yelling at everybody. 'Why? Why? Why?' You want to help, but you can't."

He said he still feels a part of the team. But, by the end of the week, he planned to leave it.

He was to fly home to Sweden to spend a couple of weeks with his wife, whom he last saw in January.

There will be no problem finding out in Sweden how the Capitals are doing against the New York Rangers, Gustafsson said. The Swedish newspapers run NHL scores promptly.

The trip home may be a harbinger of Gustafsson's career plans. He has a decision to make by next season, whether to return to the Capitals or play in Sweden.

At home, he could join a team sponsored by a corporation and, while continuing to play hockey, begin to work his way into other career work with the firm.

On the season-ending injury, Gustafsson at first thought he had pulled knee ligaments after Potvin tripped him. But in the locker room, he noticed his knees, which are gnarled and knotted from schoolboy soccer, did not look the same.

The right knee was swelling, and the bone looked out of place. X-rays revealed a break, and the season was over.

He didn't cry, but he came close.

"I was sitting in the shower in the locker room, thinking why this happened to me," he said. "Tears were not far away."

The word around the team is that Gustafsson has taken his injury very well, indeed.

"I broke a leg, nothing worse than that," he said. "I want to play hockey again, for sure. But I want to walk again, too."

He laughed.

"Maybe it's good luck for the team. Maybe they'll go and win it without me.

"If that's the case, I'll break my leg every year."