Professional sports teams are, by their nature, organizations with high turnover, so goodbyes are common. However, the departure yesterday of Washington Capitals defenseman Scott Stevens and left wing Geoff Courtnall for the St. Louis Blues was anything but ordinary.

Different in style, contributions to the team, and longevity with the club, Stevens and Courtnall became friends, sharing a taste in fine clothes and fishing. They will now have the Mississippi River to fish and more chances to shop on Michigan Avenue when the Blues play their Norris Division-rival Chicago Blackhawks.

The Blues shocked the NHL by offering Stevens a four-year, $5.1 million contract, which will make him the highest-paid defenseman in the league. Not surprisingly, Stevens signed the offer sheet and when the Capitals declined to match the offer, Stevens became a Blue. In the couple of hours before the midnight deadline, the Capitals and Blues worked out a trade that sent Courtnall to St. Louis for center Peter Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor.

"Having Scott Stevens here for the last eight years was certainly a big part of the success of the Capitals," General Manager David Poile said yesterday. "He deserves a lot of credit for turning the franchise around. I wish we still had him, but that's not the way it's going to be. Scott Stevens is now in the past tense."

The pair depart in the aftermath of the May incident in which four Capitals (Dino Ciccarelli and Neil Sheehy being the other two) were implicated in the alleged rape of a 17-year-old in a limousine outside a Georgetown bar. The players denied the accusations and on June 29 a D.C. Superior Court grand jury decided not to indict any of the players.

Stevens said the incident had nothing to do with his decision to leave and he bristled late Thursday night when the subject was brought up. He was angry at the personal stigma and the effect on the organization. Asked whom he blamed, Stevens said: "I don't want to say too much more. There's already been enough irresponsible writing."

Courtnall, 27, just completed his second season with the Capitals after spending time in the Edmonton and Boston organizations. He enjoyed his best NHL seasons in Washington. In 1988-89, Courtnall scored 42 goals and added 38 assists. Only Ciccarelli -- who arrived in March of that season -- had more goals among the 1989-90 Capitals. This past season, Courtnall scored 35 goals, with 39 assists. But he worried the incident would overshadow anything he would do in the future.

"We want to put it behind us," Courtnall's wife, Penny, said yesterday. "They all said they were innocent at the beginning and that was proven by the grand jury."

Both players are good skaters, but Stevens is much stronger. Courtnall's game is scoring and coaches tolerated his lack of defensive prowess. Stevens, however, is one of the toughest players in the league and he departs as the Capitals' all-time leader in penalty minutes. But as the seasons went on, fewer and fewer players challenged Stevens. In 601 regular season games for the Capitals, he scored 98 goals and had 331 assists. Besides his physical presence (6 feet 1, 215 pounds), the Capitals will miss his offensive abilities on the power play.

This past season he was the alternate captain and the players chose him as their alternate union representative. In that position, he was well aware of what other players were making around the league. He also surely knew about a four-year, $7 million contract the Blues gave Brett Hull in early June. He too was a bit surprised by the offer he received.

"I was very excited," said Stevens, who became the first high-value free agent to move since the system was put in place in 1982. "With the free agency system, it's very tough to move. It was a great offer and I had to take it. It was very generous of St. Louis."

Stevens's agent, Rick Bennett, had said earlier in the week that some pro teams take their players for granted if they have been there for a while. No player on this year's team had been a Capital any longer than Stevens. Captain Rod Langway arrived from Montreal a few months later, with a Stanley Cup ring already on his finger. When Langway won the Norris Trophy that season and the following one, he established himself as the team leader.

Even if it was unintentional, Stevens might have felt he was in a shadow, even in recent years when his trade value was greater. Stevens called Poile a "classy man," but when asked if he felt Washington took him for granted, Stevens said: "I don't know what to say. It was strange, being there eight years. They know what they were getting in Scott Stevens. To let {the contract negotiations} go that long, it was a little peculiar."

Capitals fans won't see Stevens and Courtnall in person until March 19, 1991, when the Blues make their only Capital Centre appearance of the season.

"The fans were good to me," Stevens said. "I tried to play as hard as I could every night."