MOST OF THE news accounts of what Dave Brown did to Tomas Sandstrom in a hockey game last week described it as a "cross-check." Robert Fachet, The Post's hockey writer, came closer to the truth when he called it a "stick attack." If you'd been a policeman standing nearby, you'd likely have called it assault with a deadly weapon and read the perpetrator his rights on the way to the station house.

It happened in a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers. Mr. Brown of the Flyers took advantage of a lull after the referee's whistle had stopped play to skate in wielding his hockey stick with both hands and deliver a mighty clop to the head of Mr. Sandstrom, who was caught unaware. The victim took the blow full on the right side of his face, his head snapped back and he collapsed to the ice. Amazingly, he suffered only a concussion.

The National Hockey League was quick to render a verdict. "Although Sandstrom had done nothing apparent to provoke Brown, the Flyers' player came from behind and moved several feet to reach Sandstrom before delivering the blow," a league official said this week. "He had time to consider his actions."

But if justice is swift in the NHL, it is tempered with a remarkable degree of leniency. For his act, Mr. Brown was sentenced to miss only 15 games -- about one-fifth of the regular season. This despite the fact that he has a long history of similar if somewhat less vicious offenses and that just last March he was suspended for five games for an assault on the same man.

Dave Brown is far from being alone among the ranks of what some call the "enforcers" or "intimidators" in professional hockey. They're not generally all that skilled; their ratio of penalty minutes to goals scored over a season might be in the range of 30 to 1. But if they can hurt a good player or goad him into a fight that gets him off the ice, it can help their teams win.

This makes for a dreary brand of hockey, one that at times hardly resembles sport. The NHL, which has a long history of tolerating excessive violence, is supposedly trying to cut down on it, and the league's action in this most recent case was looked to as an indication of how serious it is. Now, in allowing Dave Brown to return to the ice at all this season, it gives its answer: not enough. The next time there's a mugging on the ice, forget about the NHL; somebody go out and call the cops.