When Pat Peake was a child, he would sit in his bedroom at night and dream of the NHL. The arena would be full of light, and over the loudspeaker a booming voice would say his name. And then the people would cheer.

In a warped way, the dream came horribly true. Peake's name was read, along with the starters and stars, before almost every Washington Capitals game during the last two years. Only his name was not called out with a drumroll, and it barely drew a clap. He was announced each night as a medical scratch, and each night it would make him feel more and more helpless.

"I've played hockey since I was six years old," Peake said. "That's all I know, that's all I am, and all of a sudden it gets taken away from you. All of a sudden it's like it's you that's missing."

Peake reminisced Monday morning while watching the Capitals skate at Joe Louis Arena, where they later played a preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings. The 25-year-old lives about an hour from here, near the town where he grew up and 400 miles from Washington, where so many of his memories are, good and bad. It was the first time Peake visited the Capitals since retiring this summer, since his contract ended and he realized multiple injuries to his right foot and ankle would prevent him from playing again.

It was hard for Peake to walk into the arena, and not just because he is on crutches -- again -- the result of a fifth foot operation that was performed last week. It was hard because he felt like he was suffocating and free-falling, with no room to breathe and nothing to hold on to.

"I was pretty anxious {Sunday} night; I knew how hard it would be to come down here and be around the guys, but at some point you just have to do it," Peake said, his eyes gazing far across the rink. "You miss your old buddies, and then you watch practice and you just want to be out there." He turned suddenly. "Truthfully, this {stinks}," he said. "It's awful."

Maybe that's why Peake headed for the training room almost as soon as he arrived at the arena. A string of injuries that has plagued him since before he turned professional has made Peake intimately aware of this room, and right then it was the safest place in the building. He lay casually on one of the tables, joking with a few ex-teammates, talking with Coach Ron Wilson.

In some ways, it was a typical moment. Through his injuries, but especially since he shattered his heel during the 1996 playoffs, Peake made jokes. He tried to make his ex-teammates feel comfortable around him, even though he knew his presence reminded them of their own vulnerability.

Drafted by the Capitals in the first round (14th overall) in 1991, Peake was earmarked as a star. Two years later, he was named the Canadian junior player of the year, scoring 136 points (58 goals) in 46 games. In his first year with Washington, he scored 29 points in 49 games. Two years later he had 36 points in 62 games.

But almost as soon as the accolades came, so did the bad luck. Peake endured a variety of injuries to his ankles, shoulders, kidney and knees. He had mononucleosis and broke cartilage in his thyroid.

He figured the thyroid injury would go down as the NHL's strangest injury, although by now it's not even the strangest injury in his own career. In a playoff game against Pittsburgh in 1996, Peake was chasing a puck, trying to prevent a routine icing call. If he had been a step slower, maybe it never would have happened. But Peake was never slow; he crashed against the boards, shattering his right heel.

No one can remember a similar injury in the history of the league. In fact, a shattered heel is usually associated with construction workers who fall off buildings. But it was the beginning of the end for Peake, who spent most of the following season trying to rehabilitate the injury. He had surgeries to insert screws and then to move them. More often than not he was wrapped in something or plugged into something in the Capitals' training room in an effort to heal faster or, really, to heal at all.

Peake thought he was ready to come back at the end of that February, but he was moving a big-screen television in his house and it fell on his hand, breaking a bone. When that healed in March, he made it back on to the ice, but a few weeks later, he and left wing Steve Konowalchuk were in a minor car accident outside of USAirways Arena. Peake suffered a concussion and he missed the season's final three games.

Last year, he came to training camp in September feeling better about his chances, and he managed to impress Wilson, the new coach. But something odd happened just as Peake was starting to show a hint of his old promise. He got sick with headaches and felt depressed, and he missed the first two weeks of the season.

"The foot was doing good, camp was good, and even though I didn't put up great numbers, I knew I had a real good camp," Peake said. "Then I came and played a little bit, and maybe it was a little anxiety -- who knows? I can't really explain it. This whole thing has been so hard."

When Peake started to feel better, he was sent to the Capitals' minor league team in Portland, Maine, on a conditioning stint. He was back in good enough form to play in a home game on Nov. 8, but his foot hurt immensely afterward. A few days later, an MRI exam showed dangerously torn ligaments. The diagnosis meant another round of surgery, hours of therapy and even more time in the training room. It meant his season was over. Again.

"He endured a lot of pain; it's the dark side of our sport that people don't see," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "There aren't players that have the gift he had that come along that often. He was one of those natural players that had instincts and hands you can't develop."

By the time the Capitals entered the playoffs, Peake was skating again, trying to participate in practices and take part in drills. It hurt a lot, sometimes with his foot swelling so much he couldn't get it into his skate. He worked out anyway, including at Joe Louis Arena, where the Capitals faced the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals. Some people there remembered him from his junior hockey days, but when they heard his name dutifully announced before each game, it sounded different than it did when Peake was on the rise. He was a scratch.

When the season ended with a four-game sweep by Detroit, Peake's contract ended, too. In August he met with the Capitals' doctors, and although he wasn't surprised when they told him there was little to be done, he felt worse than he thought possible.

"You think after two years of going through all of this, it'll be better just to know one way or the other," said Carrie Peake, Pat's wife. "But it's not, because the news you finally get isn't good. This was something he worked {on} for his whole life."

"It was hard," Pat Peake said. "It was the worst summer of my life, by far, and as much as you prepare for it, it's night and day from when it happens. All of a sudden, it's reality now.

"Somehow, you always thought you had a chance. You know athletes, no matter what we do, we think I'll be back, not me, I'll heal fast.' Then they say That's it,' and you have a lot of sleepless nights and hard times."

Pat asked Carrie to go to Maryland to pack the house they had rented because he didn't think he could handle boxing up his hockey career. He had another operation, this time to re-sew his tendon, jiggle the screws and remove what seemed like yards of scar tissue.

Peake still limps, but he also is aware this might not be his last time in the doctor's office. If this surgery doesn't work -- and doctors are not optimistic it will -- Peake will have to have the tendon cut and the joints fused.

In the meantime, he is looking beyond the NHL. With the $500,000 salary he continued to draw as he tried to rehabilitate his foot and the forthcoming $300,000 disability check, Peake has financial security. He'd like to remain involved in the sport, and his voice gets lighter again as he talks about coaching or scouting.

"If I had kept playing I could have made a lot, lot, lot more money obviously, but I have to thank the Caps, because they could have bought me out two years ago," he said, waving a crutch at goaltender Rick Tabaracci as he skated past. "I made $500,000 the last two years, and I played five games -- I'm the highest-paid player per game in the league.

"I am going to look for some work because doing stuff helps. If you're active, you feel better, so once I get this cast off and I can start wandering, I'll be able to start looking for something to do. I'd like to go up and work with some of the juniors. Or maybe I could work as a trainer. I'll tell you one thing: After all of this, I sure know how to tape up an ankle." CAPTION: Pat Peake, on a rehabilitation assignment in Portland in 1997, recently had a fifth foot operation. ec