Center Bengt Gustafsson rejected what he called "a dream offer" from the Washington Capitals yesterday and signed to play for Bofors in the Swedish Second Division.

However, Gustafsson left open the possibility of returning to Washington for the stretch drive and playoffs next spring, at the conclusion of the Swedish season.

Gustafsson, who would not be specific about the Capitals' offer, announced his decision at an afternoon news conference in his hometown of Karlskoga, Sweden. It was reported by Scandinavia News Agency before Gustafsson could notify his agent, Art Kaminsky, who was to have informed the Capitals.

Accordingly, Washington owner Abe Pollin and General Manager David Poile learned of Gustafsson's decision from a reporter.

"It's a complete surprise to me," Pollin said. "It was my understanding that the matter was still open. As far as I'm concerned, if that's the case, that's the case, but we certainly have tried to keep him here."

"That's news to me," said Poile, who talked with Gustafsson here Friday, before Gustafsson flew home to Sweden to weigh the Capitals' latest offer.

"That is an area we should keep open," Poile said of a possible return late next season. "But I would have to look at the club and the chemistry before I give an answer there."

Contacted by phone in Karlskoga, Gustafsson said, "I just told a couple of guys from the local papers. I didn't expect it to go so fast over there . . . . .

"My choice now is a social thing. Money is part of it, but I don't want to talk back and forth about it and I'm not going to change my mind now.

"I grew up in this town and I played for this team when I was a kid. They did a lot for me and now . . . I have a chance to help them out."

With Bofors, one of the world's leading weapons factories, Gustafsson will have a regular job besides playing hockey.

He signed a new contract with Washington last summer, after making it clear he preferred to play in Sweden. Although the Capitals refused to grant him a release, Poile agreed that if at the end of any future NHL season Gustafsson chose to join a Swedish team, the Capitals would grant him a release.

Gustafsson, 28, was enjoying his finest NHL campaign when his right leg was broken in late March, the result of a trip by Denis Potvin of the New York Islanders. Although Gustafsson reiterated that he did not expect to be back, the Capitals hoped to persuade him to return for one more season.

"We were probably lucky we got him to play the last two seasons," Poile said. "But I can't help but feel that if he had got through the year injury-free, he'd be coming back. He's had so many injuries through the years, the 36-game schedule in Sweden has to be a big attraction to him."

He was here May 24-30, having his leg checked and discussing his situation with Poile and team president Dick Patrick. His leg had healed well and was judged sound.

With the Capitals, Gustafsson had 23 goals and 52 assists in 70 regular-season games. He has been considered one of the best two-way players in the sport.