The pucks hitting the sides of the goal made a pinging sound. The kids on skates kept charging the open net, moving as fast as their legs could carry them, eyes wide and alive behind their masks, hands gripped tightly around sticks, shooting, shooting, shooting.

Hockey.

Several hours after NHL players and owners reached a tentative agreement Wednesday on a labor deal that ended a senseless 301-day lockout and cost the NHL a full season, Bethesda's Cabin John Ice Rink was going strong.

Outside, the temperature was over 90, the lights at nearby Shirley Povich Field said baseball tonight and two teams from the Cal Ripken Senior League were getting ready for a game. But inside the rink, the temperature was cold enough to skate and the subject was hockey.

"Greed on both sides," said Jesse Hightower, a 20-year-old student at Maryland, stepping on the ice, giving his view of the season-long work stoppage. "But I'm looking forward to going back to MCI for the Caps. Maybe I'll get a six-game plan." Jackie Bell, 16, didn't disagree, saying, "Both sides were stupid and selfish and gained nothing." But she added, "I'll go back, too. I like the sport and the games."

Washington isn't Detroit or Montreal -- it will never be Hockeytown, USA. But the cynics who say no one cares about hockey -- here and throughout most of the country -- are wrong. The Capitals were born in 1974 and after a decade of futility gained respectability and became one of the better regular season teams in the league, if breaking hearts in the playoffs.

But anyone who ever saw Rod Langway play for the Capitals, or was at Capital Centre when Dale Hunter beat Philly in OT in the seventh game of a playoff series in 1988, or paid attention to the Caps' run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, knows this is a meaningful team playing a major league sport for many fans who care. It's the same for anyone who watched Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, Sergei Gonchar, Jeff Halpern and Kono over the years, or admired the prowess and class of Olaf Kolzig.

It falls on the shoulders of Ted Leonsis, who heads a substantial group of investors that bought the club from Abe Pollin in May 1999, to put a good team on the ice. Aware a salary cap ($39 million per team) was coming, Leonsis last year unloaded many of the team's highest-paid stars, including Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Bondra. Now Leonsis and GM George McPhee are playing on a more level ice surface and fans deserve a competitive team.

Thirteen months ago, the Caps got lucky and drew the first pick in the 2004 draft, taking Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Contracts, deadlines, labor agreement ratifications, money -- whatever -- remain obstacles to Ovechkin working in D.C. It would be a shame if Ovechkin never meets Connor Liu, 10, of Potomac or his friend, Yucca Reinecke. Both play junior hockey here, "love the pregame introductions" at MCI Center and could use some skating pointers from a Russian teenager playing for the Caps.

Good Move Under the Basket

I thought the Wizards made out reasonably well, signing Kwame Brown and trading him to the Los Angeles Lakers for 6-foot-7 swingman Caron Butler, 25, and 30-year-old point guard Chucky Atkins.

Brown, the first high school player ever taken No. 1 in the NBA draft (by the Wizards in 2001), could never please Michael Jordan, who made the pick when he was running the Wizards and was Kwame's teammate for two seasons. Brown, 23, had great physical potential, but his development over the past four years as an NBA player was minimal. On the court with Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes, you barely noticed Kwame.

While some Wizards fans rode Brown relentlessly, his response was childlike, saying he was "uncomfortable" playing at home. For what these guys earn, hearing the boos comes with the territory. But Brown's worst moment in four years here was going into a funk over his lack of playing time after the Wizards' third playoff game against the Bulls last spring, missing practice, a shoot-around and getting suspended for the rest of the playoffs. That finished Brown here forever -- so GM Ernie Grunfeld's acquisition of Butler and Atkins for Brown looks good on paper and makes the unfortunate departure of Hughes a little easier to swallow. "We're going to be a little different next season," Grunfeld said before the deal this week. "But we're going to be good. How many teams have two all-stars?"

Several points:

* Butler played extremely well for two years for the Miami Heat before going to the Lakers last year in the Shaquille O'Neal deal. Butler averaged 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds for L.A. and could be as valuable to the Wiz as Hughes.

* There's no doubt had Brown played two or three years of big-time college basketball, he'd have been better for it and so would the Wizards.

* Finally, Juan Dixon needs to remain a Wizard.

Touching the Bases

* Nats fans have to learn patience and pace, as the second half of the baseball season commences, and the surprise home team struggles with a lack of scoring, faltering bullpen and injuries, especially to first baseman Nick Johnson. Frank Robinson's team has built enough cushion to contend for a playoff spot, unless a total collapse occurs. And good for feisty GM Jim Bowden, acquiring outfielder Preston Wilson from Colorado and signing pitcher Mike Stanton. . . . And why would Major League Baseball, which owned the Expos for three years before relocating them to Washington, expedite its sale process when the nightly gross from RFK Stadium is more than $800,000?

* Tell me you didn't get a little teary-eyed watching Jack Nicklaus, 65, walk up 18 at St. Andrews Friday? It was Jack's 38th British Open and final appearance in a major. When Nickaus's putt dropped on 18 for a birdie and a 72 -- not good enough to make the cut -- I wanted to hear Sinatra's "My Way."

* And speaking of "My Way," a bunch of retired Redskins and Eagles will play a flag football game for charity at 3 p.m. on July 24 at the Prince George's Sports and Learning Center in Landover. We're talking Brian Mitchell, Gary Clark, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, George Starke, Ken Harvey and Andre Collins, among others. I'm not going to mention the retired Eagles, because who liked these guys when they played?

* No column next Sunday, as I'm spending most of the week in Lenox, Mass., listening to the Boston Symphony (doing "Hail to the Redskins," I've been promised) at Tanglewood, watching ballet (Carlos Baerga playing first?) at Jacob's Pillow and not missing a single Nats pitch, thanks to XM radio.

Have a question or comment, reach me at Talkback at washpost.com.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, right, applauds Alexander Ovechkin's selection as the NHL's No. 1 overall pick in 2004. But obstacles remain before Ovechkin suits up for Washington.