Two years ago, after the Washington Capitals were dispatched from the National Hockey League playoffs earlier than expected (again), several season ticket holders wrote to the organization to say they would not renew their investment in the franchise if then-coach Bryan Murray returned the next season.

The job of Lew Strudler, officially known as the vice president for marketing, is to get -- and keep -- people in the seats at Capital Centre. That is the principle way the franchise makes money, and, like any professional team, the Capitals are a business entity. So Strudler asked Murray if he would mind talking to the customers on the phone. Murray, who understands the business, agreed and it was arranged to have him chat with the people who were probably booing him as he left the ice in that final game. Impressed that he had taken the time, the ticket holders reconsidered.

"It's a very effective way of letting people ventilate their feelings," Strudler said yesterday.

There was probably quite a bit of exhalation on Friday, when a D.C. Superior Court grand jury decided not to indict four Capitals players accused of participating in sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl, who alleged she was raped and sodomized in a limousine after a season-ending party in Georgetown. While some people will be satisfied and placated by the legal finding, others surely are going to remain bothered by the incident. If too many of them are angry enough not to spend their money on tickets, the franchise will have problems. So, this summer -- which was to be so blissfully quiet after the team reached the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time -- is now all about damage control.

"Everybody who wrote a letter will be called and talked to," Strudler said. "We'll see what we need to do to heal the wounded feelings. But we've always done that. Some of the {implicated} players said they would be willing to do that, if it helped to be on the phone."

General Manager David Poile said he was not sure how fans will react to the grand jury's decision not to indict Dino Ciccarelli, Geoff Courtnall, Neil Sheehy and Scott Stevens.

"I find that hard to answer," Poile said. "Their decision hopefully will be affected positively by the grand jury decision, but it's hard to speculate what people's feelings are. The Capitals are very conscious of our role in the community and are proud of a lot of the things we've accomplished off the ice."

The Capitals sold 8,806 season tickets last season, with another 7,800 or so people buying partial plans. Renewal forms were mailed to those people last Monday. Strudler reported two cancellations, though one was because the ticket holder was leaving town and the other because they wanted better seats that, at this point, were unavailable. But as Strudler said, "It's too early to get an indication" of the level of returns.

Poile has worked extremely hard to get the Capitals to where they are on the ice. Off the ice, he has become one of the league's most-respected general managers. This past year, he has served as chairman of the general managers' committee.

"I don't have a crystal ball to tell me what's going to happen to the Washington Capitals, in terms of how we are perceived around the league," Poile said. "All I can say is that we will work as hard as we can -- starting with me -- to do the best job we can."

There are some fans who will want Poile to use his trading skills to ship out the accused players, regardless of the grand jury's decision.

In the statement (attributed to owner Abe Pollin, President Dick Patrick and Poile) released Friday night, the team said, "We expect that all players involved will continue as members of the Washington Capitals."

Pollin could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Poile said, "We're all together on that."

Still, an expectation is not a guarantee.

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

If the Capitals decide they must trade the players -- either because of Pollin's anger over the incident or negative fan reaction -- there certainly will be interest in the four, though in varying amounts. Other right wings had more points, but only six had more than the 41 goals Ciccarelli scored last season while leading the Capitals in points. Courtnall was next in line. Stevens's season was interrupted by a broken foot, but he is still one of the league's best defensemen and is just 26. His situation is a bit more complicated because as of today, he becomes a free agent, as does goalie Don Beaupre. However, any team signing Stevens (or Beaupre) at the salary he is likely to command, would have to pay hefty compensation to the Capitals.

"Certainly it is a high priority, the top goal of mine," Poile said of the negotiations with Stevens's agent, Rick Bennett. "At this point, we don't have a deal."

Sheehy, 30, would bring the least in a trade. He is hoping it is not an issue.

"I love playing for the Capitals and I love being a part of the organization," Sheehy said. "I certainly hope I'm able to play there for several years. Hockey is a business and business decisions have to be made, but I hope I'm in Washington. I certainly like it there, and as I said, I'm looking forward to the upcoming season."

Coach Terry Murray said a trade should be made only in the course of normal business.

"The players involved are good players," Murray said. "They were very important to the success we've had and the success we hopefully will have in the future. As a coach, I don't want to see them moved because of what has taken place. If you get caught up in trying to do that, then you can't get true value for them.

"They are part of the club right now. I don't think there will be any different procedure in the future than there has been in the past when it comes to evaluating players on the team. If we think there are some other people we want to look at or if some other team calls, we'll talk about a trade as team management. If we can do something to make this a better hockey club, then we want to do it. But as far as making a trade, I don't want to see them moved just because of the allegations of what happened."

When the Capitals went into the playoffs last season, Murray did not hide from the prior playoff problems of the team. He discussed them with the players and with the media. Murray said there may be a point at the start of training camp when he will discuss this incident with the whole team. But he wants a balance.

"We're not going to put our heads in the sand," Murray said. "The accusations were there. But again, there were no charges. I don't want to prolong this and I don't want to continually bring up something negative like this, because then I'm not going to get the best performances from my people. There is a lesson to be learned, and maybe something needs to be said, but then we'll let it go and move on."

And the lesson?

"The lesson being to use better judgment that needs to be practiced in all situations when you're a professional athlete," Murray said. "You've got to almost be squeaky clean in today's society being a role model that people look up to."