Rod Langway was not smiling. Chafing in a coat and tie, he was standing outside the Washington Capitals' locker room at the Great Western Forum, uncomfortable, unhappy and out of place even though his team had just beaten the Los Angeles Kings in a 10-3 rout.

He had not played. He was not tired. His knees didn't ache. Instead, he had worked behind the bench, as an assistant coach for the first time that season and it was an altogether different feeling.

Langway, one of the few players in hockey who didn't wear a helmet, was the immediately recognizable, roguish local hero who spent 15 NHL seasons doing so much of the tiring, unglamourous work -- the pushing and shoving, digging for pucks in the corner -- that hockey entails. He did it in a such a smooth-yet-dominating way that it seemed natural and instinctive.

But three months shy of his 36th birthday, Langway saw this coat-and-tie-and-management-role as a yoke, a shackle, an ominous sign that his career was ending, and he wanted no part of it.

"I just said, 'This isn't me,' " Langway acknowledged last week over lunch at Langway's Sports Club in Lanham, in his first extended interview since he left the Capitals on March 12. "It wasn't what I wanted to do at that time. I wanted to be playing, not be in a suit, not being a cheerleader. I felt I helped some of the defensemen and other players. But it wasn't what I was being paid for, I guess. ... It was just something I couldn't handle."

Five days before that February 13 game with the Kings, Rod Langway had given up his team captaincy he had held since 1982 to Kevin Hatcher, almost 10 years his junior.

In his days as team leader, he could stabilize a frenetic situation on the ice. Off it, he could make sure the marginal player felt as much a part of the team as the star. But after that victory over the Kings, he was on the other side and players jokingly wondered if he could or should hang with them that night as they went in search of fun.

"I was bothered," Langway said. "It was joking, but I'm sure some of it was on their minds as teammates. They didn't know what they could do with me. Should they go out with me or what?"

Four weeks later, Langway was gone.

Langway was working under a six-year contract that was first negotiated prior to the 1991-92 season. Both sides agreed the first two years were intended to be the playing portion; the last four were to be for a post-playing job in the organization that would begin whenever his playing days were over.

Last August, Langway was hoping to play two more years and Capitals General Manager David Poile wasn't bothered by the idea because Langway had played well -- for a 34-year-old -- the prior season. But September and October were bleak months for the Capitals. Fans were angry that Dino Ciccarelli had been traded to Detroit for Kevin Miller. Randy Burridge had a second major knee operation. Dimitri Khristich -- the highest-returning goal scorer -- broke his foot and defenseman Sylvain Cote broke his hand. And the season hadn't even started.

When it did begin, not much good happened, but it was group failure. The 3-7 start was the worst since 1983-84. Bob Carpenter needed 16 games to score his first goal. By that time, Kevin Miller had already been traded without scoring any. The '91-92 leading scorer, Michal Pivonka, pulled a groin muscle in the third game and missed 15 of the first 19.

In that third game, at home against Philadelphia, right wing Pat Elynuik failed to clear the puck, which then bounced away from Langway, and Kevin Dineen scored the game-winning goal in a 4-2 Flyers win. Two nights later in New Jersey, then-Devil Zdeno Cigar took the puck from Langway behind the net and fed Claude Lemieux for the first of three straight goals in a 4-2 Devils win. Those were two of the 22 Patrick Division losses.

"It just wasn't happening," Coach Terry Murray said of Langway's play.

"We were losing," Langway said when asked how he thought he was playing in October. "I wasn't playing that well. We weren't scoring goals and though we were not giving up many goals {actually, it was 3.6 per game}, we were still losing. We had a lot of key players out. ... Minutes were down, the philosophy of the team {changed} and we were losing. {Murray} was playing the four better, or big, defenseman."

Those would be Hatcher, Al Iafrate, Calle Johansson and Cote -- all of whom are 26 or 27 years old and offense oriented. Langway's game has always been defense (51 career goals).

Officiating is always an issue, but it was especially so early in the National Hockey League season. Referees clamped down on much of the clutching and grabbing that had gone on for years. In many minds, they relaxed their enforcement as the season went on, but that didn't help Langway in October, when he played 10 of the 21 games he played last season.

"It was a joke, and they went back to the old rules in the playoffs," Langway said. "But for me, it took everything away from the way I'm used to playing -- the grabbing, holding, trying to outmuscle a smaller, faster player. You couldn't do it or you'd be in the penalty box."

Unchecked Emotions

Having given him a couple days notice, Murray left Langway out of the lineup for the first time on Oct. 30 in Calgary. Wearing the captain's "C," Hatcher had two goals to help snap a four-game losing streak. The next night in Edmonton, Langway was back in the lineup but the team lost, 4-2. Afterward, Murray could be heard through a closed door shouting at Iafrate, who was Langway's defensive partner for that first month. Iafrate had no goals, just five assists and had a minus-12 rating at that point. Iafrate's best months were November and December when he began playing with Cote. Iafrate finished with 25 goals, 41 assists, a plus-15 rating and second-team all-star status.

Late on Nov. 1 and just after the team arrived home from Edmonton, Kevin Miller was traded to the Blues -- but not for a forward. It was a defenseman, Paul Cavallini (since traded to Dallas), another sign that the team thought Langway's play wasn't sufficient. On Nov. 5, Langway and Poile met at Piney Orchard Ice Arena and Poile explained that he might be in and out of the lineup all season.

"No," Langway said when asked if he told Poile and Murray he disagreed with their assessment, but then countered by adding, "I told them I felt I could play and I still do. I was brought up to think that coaches and management make the decisions. If they feel I didn't prove to them I could play, they've got to live by that. It's like picking a hot goalie. Second-guessing doesn't work in our business."

After that meeting, an angry Langway swung through the locker room, and left other players with the impression he had been told to retire then and there. Langway said this week he didn't remember his reaction being so "severe," but he said, "There were some emotional times, mostly in November, and it took me a while to accept that."

Poile offered to trade him if that were what Langway wanted, but Langway chose to have one knee and one shoulder operated on to clear up any of those doubts. But it also bought time, enabling Langway to put off making a decision. He was skating again by late December and eager to get in the lineup. With Cote and Johansson injured, Langway played eight straight games in January, though the minutes, even killing penalties, were not great. But Cote and Johansson got well and Langway would play only two more games.

The last was Feb. 21, a 5-2 win over St. Louis at Capital Centre, but by then pride was overtaking patience. It killed him to sit. The Capitals -- from owner Abe Pollin on down -- hoped he would accept this part-time role and be there, even for two minutes of work, in the playoffs, but that thought scared him too.

"That's one reason, a big reason, then and now," Langway said. "One reason I left was my pride. I wasn't going to go out there and embarrass myself."

So on March 12, he departed, and quickly retreated to the seclusion of the lush golf courses on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Though he watched some games on television, he never went to another Capitals game.

An eight- or 10-handicap golfer with the tan to prove it, Langway insisted that he didn't reconsider the decision to leave while walking the fairways.

"Yeah, you think about it," he said. "It took three or four days to make the decision to tell Abe Pollin that I wanted to walk. You don't do that overnight. It was a big shock to everyone but me. But after the decision, I stuck to it. I didn't second-guess myself. Should I call and go back? I never thought about it."

What he missed was being with teammates, yet there too lies a contradiction.

"I guess that was one thing that hurt," Langway said. "I didn't hear from anyone. A couple guys talked to Scarlett {Sasscer, his fiancee} when I was away. But I didn't return the phone calls. I don't want to say I promised the organization that I'd stay away from the game, but I honored that. That is one thing I wouldn't mind changing -- to still stay in contact and meet some of the guys for a beer. But I didn't know what was said to them about me. Did the organization tell them to stay away from Rod? So I left it alone."

Team officials say no such thing was said. And a group of players, including Hatcher, eventually called Langway's friend and business partner, Willie Koutrompis, to arrange a get-together.

"It felt funny," Langway said. "I gave them the usual, 'Welcome to Langway's,' and we talked for a couple hours. It was good."

'I'll Stick It Out'

Last Monday, the Capitals put Langway on waivers, at his request. Once clear, he is free to negotiate a playing contract with any other NHL team and any team signing him would not be required to compensate the Capitals.

Langway's agent has started to contact teams and Langway said he will do some letter writing himself after this weekend. Langway might get several offers, he might get none. But he might also be told by a general manager that he can't be assured of anything more than he had in Washington last season. Could he accept there what he couldn't accept here?

"If they say, 'I can't promise you more,' well, hopefully, I'll win my own situation," Langway said. "And I had no complaint with what they did to me here. I just wasn't ready for it. I didn't want to go out that way. But now my contract is up. I might have to bite the bullet. If it happens that way, I'll stick it out. If it happens again, then I'll know it's my last year."

At some point, a front office job or any non-playing job is what Langway will have to face.

"I spent a lot of years playing sports, and I don't have a clue," Langway said. "I don't think I could work a nine-to-five job. But to have a different feel for another job. ... I don't know. It is something I'll have to try."

With the Capitals, it might be as an assistant coach or in marketing. Langway was making $342,000 (plus $75,000 in deferred money) in the 1990-91 season. Under the current deal, he makes an average of $275,000 over the six seasons. "Financially, I'm fine," he said. He has three children from his first marriage (Tucker, Drew and Nicole) and another (six-month-old Hannah) with Scarlett.

Langway said it would be "a very tough situation" to immediately coach players who were just recently teammates, but hanging out with them on the road will be important.

"Off the ice and away from the rink, you are human beings," said Langway. "You don't have to put a smoke screen up. You don't have to be buddy-buddy with everybody and not over at everybody's house every day.

"But when you go on the road, have a couple beers and go to dinner consistently with players -- I don't see nothing wrong with it. I think it can be beneficial."

Family Ties

Poile and Langway's careers with the team were linked right from the start. Poile became the Capitals general manager on August 30, 1982, and made a six-player deal for Langway 11 days later. The team had never before made the playoffs and has not missed them since. Twice Langway won the Norris Trophy, given annually to the NHL's top defenseman.

"We came in at a funny situation," Langway said. "I'm sure David doesn't like a lot of things I do. But I'm sure he knows that I don't respect some of the things he does with the team with contracts and how he handles players. But I would never criticize him to the point of saying, 'I can do better or he shouldn't do it this way.' I'm not in his position and I told him a long time ago that I would hate to have his job. It's a tough one."

Poile openly struggled with this situation.

"It was almost a family thing that you have to do, but you don't feel good because you're saying something negative," Poile said Friday, ironically, from Hilton Head where he and his family are vacationing. "In all my time with Rod, maybe it was the only negative thing I've had to say because he was so good for so long. I thought, 'Why am I the messenger?' You're hoping in that situation -- though it didn't happen here -- that the player comes to you and says, 'I've had enough.' "

That certainly has not happened. So while the Capitals will again employ Langway and probably retire his number, there was no resounding sendoff, no chance for fans to give a last standing ovation before he played one last game. Some think that is sad.

"I grew up with Carl Yastrzemski and the Carlton Fisk situation came up the other day," said Langway, born in Taiwan but raised in Massachusetts where those players were heroes for the Red Sox. "I went through this situation {in Montreal} with Guy Lafleur and Guy Lapointe. There is never an easy way out. There is no way you can feel what other players are going through. I've been going through this for two years. You know it's coming to an end real soon. But look at Fisk. He got on a weight program and he's 45 or something. It's ridiculous, but it's incredible. He's proven everybody wrong."

But Fisk, after a night of speeches, gifts and salutations, was also unceremoniously released.

Which is better, Langway is asked, to depart after a well-choreographed farewell, even if there might be something left, or cling to every last hope of playing one more game and risk the bitterness that comes with being told to leave?

"I think your pride is more important," Langway said. "I can talk to anybody and say I feel I did it the right way. If you don't respect that or question that, then that's up to you."