With a D.C. Superior Court grand jury's decision yesterday not to indict four Washington Capitals accused of sexual assault, team members expressed relief and looked to a future with less turmoil while the organization quickly began to try to rebuild its damaged public image.

"It's certainly not a feeling of elation, but it is a feeling of relief," General Manager David Poile said. "It's time to move on. It will be a new day tomorrow and we've got a long season to prepare for."

The four accused players -- right wing Dino Ciccarelli, left wing Geoff Courtnall and defensemen Scott Stevens and Neil Sheehy -- formed part of the nucleus of the team that had the most successful season in the 16-year history of the franchise -- a franchise that takes great pride in its public image.

The incident followed a May 11th, season-ending party at Champions bar in Georgetown. A 17-year-old girl told police that the four players participated in raping and sodomizing her in the back of a limousine outside the bar. The players denied the allegations from the beginning or declined to comment.

Yesterday's statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office said in part: "This matter was thoroughly investigated, and the evidence was carefully considered by the grand jury. Because the grand jury has reached a decision not to return an indictment, the investigation of these allegations is now closed."

The players, through their attorneys, issued a joint statement: "We appreciate and are grateful for the decision of the Grand Jury to reject the false accusations of criminal conduct made against us. This confirms our innocence which we have maintained throughout the investigation. During the investigation, we cooperated with law enforcement authorities and the Grand Jury. We regret the embarrassment this investigation has caused our families, friends, fans and the Washington Capitals organization. The matter is now closed and behind us."

The decision lifted a great weight from the shoulders of some of this town's more prominent athletes.

"I'm relieved," Ciccarelli said. "I'm glad it's over so I can get on with my life, with my family and with the Capitals."

Said Sheehy, "Obviously, I'm extremely relieved."

Courtnall and Stevens, who testified before the grand jury, could not be reached for comment.

"That's good news," Coach Terry Murray said of the decision. "That's great. Now we can put this whole thing behind us and get on with next season."

The controversy had affected the entire organization, and the families of all its members.

"I guess that's the end of it," goalie Don Beaupre said. "That's good news. I think everybody's learned a lesson from getting in a tight spot like that. It's something to put behind us and get on with next year. We have three months to think about other things."

Said center Mike Ridley: "That's good. As a team, it's good to get it out of the way. We have the rest of the summer to put it behind us and get ready for the hockey season."

While the legal question has been resolved, the extent of the public relations problem will be more difficult to judge. With a less lucrative television package than baseball, football or basketball, hockey is dependent on fan support. The Capitals set attendance records last season and the organization will be watching closely to see what season-ticket holders do with their renewal forms.

Owner Abe Pollin was out of town and unavailable to comment, a team official said. The team released a statement attributed to Pollin, President Dick Patrick and Poile.

"Although there was no criminal activity involved in this incident, we realize there has been substantial damage to the image of the Washington Capitals' organization within the community," the statement said. "We deeply regret this situation, and we do not condone or excuse the conduct of the players involved and their failure to appreciate the responsibility they have to shoulder as role models for young people. Religious tradition emphasizes forgiveness, and we have decided to appeal to Capitals fans and the community at large to find it in their hearts to forgive these players. We know that they have learned a bitter lesson."

Last week Poile said he did not plan to trade any of the four players; the last sentence in the team's statement said, "We expect that all players involved will continue as members of the Washington Capitals."

But that doesn't mean a trade isn't a possibility and there would be interest in at least three of the four players.

"I'm going to treat them as I would any member of our team," Poile said last night. "Trades are possible with anybody on our team. At this time, they are members of the Washington Capitals."