CALGARY -- When Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile arrives here this week, he will be watching the games of the U.S. Olympic hockey team with his eyes focused mostly on one man, right wing Steve Leach, a second-round draft choice in 1984 who may very well take his skates straight from the Saddledome to Capital Centre.

"I'm going to be looking at whether he can play for the Capitals and make a contribution right away," Poile said from Washington over the weekend. "Everything is pointing in that direction, but we'll just have to see."

Leach said he is fully aware that the Capitals will be watching, but he is far more cognizant that the whole country will be watching to see if the 1988 U.S. Olympians can contend for a medal.

Leach, 22, from Lexington, Mass., and the University of New Hampshire, has played a major role on the U.S. team since joining what he describes as "our traveling road show" last summer.

He scored 26 goals and had 20 assists in 49 games of the team's pre-Olympics practice schedule against college, professional and other national teams, and he said he has "absolutely no regrets" in taking six months off from his Capitals career to fulfill a lifetime dream.

A year ago, Leach played 15 games for the Capitals but spent most of the season in Binghamton. He had one goal in Washington, with eight goals and 21 assists for Binghamton.

He was not exactly thrilled with the arrangement, although he said, "I understood what was going on. Washington takes its time with the younger players. As a young kid coming into the league, you can lose your confidence real quickly. They like to develop players and make sure you're ready.

"Last year was tough for me. It's difficult on any player, really. You don't know which way you're going. A lot of guys have a bad attitude about it. But the key is to sustain your work ethic, and things will always work out."

Last summer, when U.S. hockey officials were building their Olympic team, Leach was approached and asked to play. In turn, he asked the Capitals for permission.

"I had a conference with David Poile," Leach recalled. "The Capitals basically told me I'd be up and down again, so I figured I'd give it {the Olympics} a shot. I'm still only 22, I've got a lot of playing left. David essentially gave me the choice. I'm sure he wasn't thrilled about it, but he understood where I was coming from. He could easily have said no, but they've been very good about it."

Poile also recalls those discussions. He said he was blunt with Leach, telling him that he most likely would start the season in Binghamton and go into a yo-yo mode once again. "After that talk," Poile said, "he felt he would be better served by playing with the U.S. team, and we gave him our blessing."

Both Poile and Leach now believe the decision has paid off in a better hockey player.

"From the few times I've seen him play and from the reports I've been getting from our scouts, we certainly have seen some improvement," Poile said.

Leach reads everything he can about the Capitals, and he knows that last week's trade of right wing Craig Laughlin to the Los Angeles Kings opens up a position the Capitals want him to fill. But for now, Leach has other things on his mind.

All he wants to do is keep winning hockey games. He remembers the 1980 U.S. Olympic team -- "not so much the details but the whole reaction by the country," he said -- and believes it can happen again.

And if it doesn't, there are other goals. "You dream about an Olympic gold medal and you dream about winning the Stanley Cup," he said the other day. "I'm lucky, I still have a chance to do both."