THE DAY BEFORE last November's congressional elections, with the debate over increased defense spending already a growing national concern, several high-level Pentagon officials met to discuss a matter of the highest priority to the Army -- a new hockey rink at West Point.

After hearing arguments from Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh Jr. and Army Chief of Staff Edward C. (Shy) Meyer about the dilapidated condition of the ice facilities at the military academy, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci III approved a request to release funds for building the estimated $18 million project.

The story of the Army's battle for Building 714 (Multipurpose Sports and Physical Development Center) illustrates how rhetoric and reality don't always mesh in the military budget process. Meyer complained publicly in 1980 about the need for more money to refurbish a "hollow Army." At the same time he was fighting budget officials' attempts to block the money for the academy's new athletic facility.

For more than two years, top officials in the Carter and Reagan administrations had blocked the funding on the grounds other projects were more important. Lawrence Korb, the assistant secretary of defense who oversees military construction, said recently that he questioned the priority of the hockey rink proposal at the decisive meeting last Nov. 1. "Given what people were saying about defense spending, I asked 'Is this the time?' "

Marsh and Meyer declined comment on the rink deliberations and Carlucci, now in private business, said through his secretary only that he "decided to fund it."

The Army has been trying to get the new rink and an adjacent basketball arena built since at least 1978. The current hockey rink is covered with canvas on one end, a West Point spokesman said, so it is frigid for spectators in winder and foggy on warmer days. The rink's playing surface had to be shortened 10 feet last year because the refrigeration equipment wouldn't keep the ice frozen. The controvery has been over how ambitious a fix should be made and how to justify it when defense dollars were supposed to be focused on improving combat readiness.

In the initial hearings in March of 1979, Rep. Gunn McKay (D-Utah), chairman of the House military construction appropriations subcommittee, referred to the proposed hockey- basketball arena as the academy's "new massive Roman Colosseum." But then Rep. Robert C. McEwen (R-N.Y.) was an enthusiastic supporter. He even reminded Army witnesses to remind the hockey coach he had two good prospects for him, "if the knees of one of them holds up."

The plan was to replace the old rink with a new 3,000-seat facility and move basketball out of the fieldhouse to a new 5,500-seat arena so minor sports such as wrestling and volleyball could move into the fieldhouse and become "revenue producers," according to the Army's testimony.

Congress bought the idea, appropriating $12.2 million. The first bids came in at nearly $18 million, however, so the Army had to go back to Congress and get the figure raised. It did so in the spring of 1980, about the time that Meyer was complaining to Congress that the Carter defense budget wasn't large enough to meet the service's readiness requirements.

"Right now we have a hollow Army," he told a House Armed Services subcommittee in May. "I don't believe the current budget responds to the Army's needs for the 1980s."

James McIntyre, who was Carter's OMB chief, agreed with Meyer in one regard. He blocked release of the hocky rink funds in July. "I had some real concerns about the defense needs of the country," he said recently. "Putting all that money into a sports facility didn't seem that necessary."

When the Reagan administration came to town in 1981 with its plans to beef up the defense budget, the Army renewed its efforts. But OMB defense budgeteer William Schneider Jr. didn't think the sports complex could be justified while billions of dollars in domestic spending -- from food stamps to aid to handicapped children -- was being slashed.

In March of 1981, according to the Army file on the project, White House counsel Edwin Meese was given a pitch about the project while on a tour of West Point. He indicated he'd mention it to OMB director David Stockman, but nothing happened. So the Army approached OMB directly.

Meyer and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) wrote OMB's Schneider that spring to plead the case. In September, Schneider answered Gilman, saying the Army's first budget priority had to be addressing combat readiness and Meyer's concerns about the "hollowness" of U.S. forces. "Of necessity, a somewhat lesser priority must go to replacement athletic facilities for officer candidates," he added.

By early 1982, someone figured a change in name might help the cause. An Army memo said Schneider had made it clear he couldn't support the project "as currently titled." So the "cadet indoor athletic facility" became "Building 714 (Multipurpose Sports and Physical Development Center)." Schneider, now under secretary of state for security assistance, science and technology, said recently that he doesn't recall suggesting a name change, although he does remember wanting to emphasize the "multipurpose" use of the structure.

The name change seemed to get OMB on board, but then Army officials learned about Korb's opposition. A memo in August showed that he and Jack R. Borsting, the Pentagon comptroller, "nonconcur(ed)" in the request to release the funds, reportedly because of concerns about the rink's justification and its political timing.

Lt. Gen. J.K. Bratton, the Army's chief engineer, told his superiors preceeding the Nov. 1 showdown that the project was easy to justify. The rink was unsafe. The size of the cadet corps had grown. More athletic space was needed for women's teams. And politically, he said, "the timing is probably the best ever. Bid advertising is expected after the coming election and approval of the DOD appropriations bill." Further delays, he noted, could "require additional political exposure."

One OMB official, who asked not to be identified, said, "We finally took the position that it was their (Army officials) decision. They had found the savings. It didn't add anything to net outlays. And if they wanted it in the end we wouldn't hold it up."

The Army had feared the delays would boost the cost of the twin arenas over $22 million and that of the hockey rink alone to $14.5 million. But when the 16 bids were opened Mar. 16, the lowest was $15.8 million for the whole project. A Corps of Engineers spokesman said construction should start early this summer and the twin structure should be ready for West Point's hockey and basketball teams in the 1984-85 academic year.

Now that this battle has been won by the Army, its attention may turn to another project on the academy's wish list -double-decking the football stadium. In August of 1981 a Corps' memo warned that West Point's chief of staff "expressed a need for putting a second deck on the east stands of Michie Stadium and paying for it with appropriated funds."