IN ALL THEIR off-ice appearances, the U.S. Olympic hockey champions reminded us far more of Gary Cooper than of Bobby Orr. In their official civvies uniforms of Western wear, the American athletes did achieve what Frank Gifford called "the good-guys look."

But, as anyone can clearly see, the American Western-wear industry needed this most recent boost about as much as George Bush needs an instant replay of the Nashua nightmare. Western wear was already doing awfully darn well even before Messrs. Craig and Eruzione.

Still, it was good to see these young men from stagecoach towns like Brockton, Mass., and Duluth, Minn., in their Stetsons and boots. If nothing else, the whole experience should help the rest of us feel a little less self-conscious as we pull on our own pointy-toed, slanty-heeled footwear.

The Western look is, indeed, big. Gray flannel is almost everywhere in retreat; denim is ubiquitous. But what it all means is open to several interpretations.

The Washington connection to Western wear has been explained by some, for instance, as just one more indication that ours is the definitive company town. Jimmy Carter, our real local chairman of the board, was widely photographed -- after he won his party's 1976 nomination -- in jeans and a work shirt. A number of Washington people who could not accept Mr. Carter's energy plans had no trouble adopting his wardrobe. We can remember the anguished cries from the hat industry upon publication of a photograph showing a bare-headed President Kennedy. Now, as then, presidents set styles along with priorities.

The modified Dale Evans look is found in most of the best car pools right next to the neo-Tom Mix motif. Perhaps here, in what has been condemned as the place of the faceless bureaucrats, we are merely trying to assert our rugged individualism through clothes.

One school of economists would credit our Western expansion to everybody's scapegoat, inflation. Demins and chamois are both inexpensive and durable. And that's saying a lot, these days. Some future scholar may very well ascribe the entire phenomenon to an unarticulated feeling of Texas chic in the midst of our perpetual energy crisis.

Whatever the reasons, Lake Placid has all but guaranteed that more Western wear will be worn by more Easterners, Southerners and Northerners, too. Nobody has suggested that the whole thing may be hereditary -- it could be in the jeans.