Scott Stevens chose to leave, selling himself to St. Louis. Geoff Courtnall asked to be traded away, and was. Neil Sheehy broke an ankle -- conveniently, some might suggest -- and won't be back for at least three months, if ever.

David Poile always maintained he had no intention of jettisoning any of the four Washington Capitals who were linked to accusations of rape and sodomy by a 17-year-old girl.

Still, three are gone.

By luck or by design, only Dino Ciccarelli remains in a Capitals uniform on the eve of the 1990-91 season.

"I didn't want to run away," Ciccarelli said. "I wanted to clear the air. I went to management and told them that if they wanted me, I certainly wanted to be here."

Although the grand jury decided not to indict any of the players, and their legal innocence was upheld, the tawdry incident in the back of a limousine in a Georgetown alley last spring was profoundly disturbing.

In protest of the incident and the organization's regrettably slow reaction to it, several Capitals fans refused to renew their tickets. Some people -- myself included -- thought the Capitals and the community would be better off without any of the four. Some people -- myself included -- believed Ciccarelli would be the first to go, considering he'd pleaded guilty to a charge of indecent exposure while a member of the Minnesota North Stars.

Ciccarelli campaigned to stay. He said the management had treated him well. He liked the team. He liked the fans. He'd had a good year on the ice. Why go? What happened in that limo would follow him wherever he was. "Going to another town won't help," Ciccarelli said. "The issue will be raised again and again. It doesn't matter where, it'll be there. You can't run from it. Scott and Geoff will hear about it in St. Louis."

And so Ciccarelli began a personal public relations effort. He'd telephone ticket holders who'd cancelled because of him and try to persuade them to come back. "They were shocked to hear from me, but I think they respected me for calling," Ciccarelli said. He'd appear at charity functions and community gatherings. Every place he went, he delivered the same message, sincerely: I'm sorry.

"I shouldn't have been in that situation for obvious reasons -- I'm married, I have three kids," Ciccarelli said. "I humiliated my wife and I angered the heck out of her. I embarrassed my family, the team and the fans."

Did you embarrass yourself?

"Sure I did."

He was wearing a tuxedo -- all the Capitals were, it was picture day -- and in it he looked so young, and crisp as pressed linen.

"I feel real bad about the situation," Ciccarelli said. "I've apologized. I've tried to make amends."

Have you spoken to the girl, he was asked.

"No," he said quickly.

Do you feel sorry for her?

And this time a pained expression came over Ciccarelli's face. "I've got to watch what I say," was Ciccarelli's guaraded response. He knew it wasn't a very good answer. But there's a possibility of a civil suit, and a lawyer might tell someone in Ciccarelli's position not to say anything that might feed it.

Still, it's a simple question, isn't it: Do you feel sorry for her?

I do.

I feel sorry for everyone involved in the shameful episode. What dignity is there in grown men having gang sex with a teenage girl in a backseat?

Ciccarelli told season ticket holders that media accounts of what happened in the limo were incorrect -- it didn't happen the way the people said it did. But he hasn't denied being there, nor has he denied that there was sexual activity. "I made a mistake being there," he said. But he wouldn't say more; his lawyers told him not to. "I can't go into details," Ciccarelli said.

He has no idea if the fans will forgive him. He hopes most will. "I'd ask them to understand that I'm human and I make mistakes." He says he knows he'll be taunted on the road by fans and players alike. He grins and tries to slough it off, saying "that comes with the territory when you're a goal scorer." But he knows the ridicule won't have anything to do with what he's done on the ice.

When you ask him what he's learned, he says, "I've got to be careful. Every mistake I make is public." It's not as encompassing an answer as you'd hope for.

While Ciccarelli was chatting, Abe Pollin came over and gave him a friendly hug around the shoulders. "How's the family?" Pollin asked.

It was a small, but meaningful gesture. The new season starts Friday night, and by that hug Pollin was showing his support for Ciccarelli. Pollin is one of the few professional sports owners who speaks of his teams in terms of "family" and actually means it.

Poile used the family analogy directly, likening the Georgetown incident to "a family situation," explaining his defense of the players in terms of parents and children: "You have good days with your kids, and you have bad days with them. You gather around and try to talk it out," Poile said, concluding that "as a parent, you support your family." Poile's advocacy is understandable, but what happened in the limo seems like more than just a bad day with the kids. Indeed, what happened in the limo was profoundly insulting to parents and kids, which accounts for the cancellations and the anger so many people felt.

All of them -- Poile, Pollin, Ciccarelli, the whole organization -- have stumbled under the moral weight of that night in May. "There's got to be a point in time," Poile said wearily, "when we say, 'Let's talk about the game tonight.' "

It's coming.

It's not here yet.