Each Tuesday and Friday, a group of local professionals, college students and just plain hockey fans forsake their lunch breaks, instead congregating on the ice rink at Mount Vernon Recreation Center in Alexandria. Why? The Adult Lunchtime Hockey league, or, in the words of creator Bruce Peters, "pickup hockey."

The participants may be amateurs, but the skill level is anything but. These men and women, taking part in drills, have mastered the fundamentals of skating, passing, shooting and stick handling. Following warm-ups, they scrimmage with substitutes entering at two-minute intervals.

"I look at this program as a sort of coping mechanism," Peters said. "There are constructive and destructive ways to deal with stress. When you have a rough morning, this is a great outlet at lunchtime."

The program's uniqueness lies in its time frame, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each Tuesday and Friday. Peters started it in the summer of 1989 on his own, before the Fairfax County Department of Recreation took it over last January. Twenty-seven players came out for the inaugural scrimmage Aug. 31. Yet, because of the center's already-overloaded schedule of events, lunchtime hockey can only take place two days a week.

"We also have public skating sessions, group lessons, skating clubs and even speed skaters," said Nancy Kapinos, assistant rink manager and hockey coordinator. Coupled with the Washington Capitals and George Mason's use of the facility for practice and games during the winter, it's difficult enough to have even two days a week on the ice.

But Peters believes that a lunch break is the ideal time for such a session. "Late night hockey is difficult for people who work during the day," he said. "Besides, you can purge your guilt from overeating at lunch."

There's no room for guilt after this workout. While some of the players on the ice plod along, looking to enhance their fundamentals -- or just their balance -- others glide by, making crisp passes and launching slap shots that whizz by the goaltender.

But the high skill level of some participants should not be a deterrent to anyone who wants to come out, Peters insists.

"With a workout like this," Peters jokes, "in another 30 years, I'll be ready for the Caps."

Terry Hitchcock may take a bit longer than that. A security guard from hockeyless Arkansas, he moved to the area several years ago and became a Capitals fan. Now he emulates them. Sort of.

"Last year was the first time I ever played," Hitchcock said. "I slide around a lot now, but I'm improving. You hear most players starting when they were 3; I started at 28."

Peters, president of Fun Flight Inc. of Alexandria, a company that sells recreational aircraft and teaches you how to operate them, played right wing and defense for four years at George Washington. After graduating in 1984, he coached in the Northern Virginia Hockey League in 1987, and never lost his love for the sport.

He even discovered comparisons between his career in the air and his hobby on the ice. "In aviation how well you do is based on how you master the fundamental skills," Peters said. "Hockey games are the same. They are not won by phenomenal moves, but they're lost on lack of fundamentals.

"I just look at it as a great release," he said. "We try and teach the basics and it's competitive, but all as a diversion."

You can play Adult Lunchtime Hockey at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center Tuesdays and Fridays beginning at 11 a.m. Players must bring their own equipment, including full face masks.

Each session costs $8, payable at the door. Anyone over the age of 16 is welcome to participate. For more information, call Nancy Kapinos at (703) 768-3222.