The International Olympic Committee could save considerable labor and expense by mailing the ice hockey gold medal to Moscow. A thaw at Lake Placid in February is more likely than a Soviet defeat.

"The Russians are absolutely awesome," said U.S. Coach Herb Brooks. They're going to run away and hide. The NHL hasn't even been able to beat them."

The silver medal is something else. The Americans captured a silver at Sapporo, Japan in 1972 and it is not out of their reach this time, despite the return of Sweden and Canada to Olympic competition.

"The Czechs and Swedes are the favorites for the other medals, Canada and West Germany are in there and we've got a chance," Brooks said. "It's contingent on our goaltending. The U.S. has played well in past Olympics, but it always depends on excellent goaltending.

"We have the youngest team, largely a bunch of college kids, and we'll be playing with pure amateurs against some tough opposition. It's a difficult assignment, but it's not an impossible one."

In 1976, a U.S. team averaging 21 years of age tied for third place with Finland and West Germany, but lost the bronze medal to the Germans on goal differential. Four of those players - Bob Miller (Boston), Steve Jensen (Los Angeles), and Dan Bolduc and John Taft (Detroit) have gone on to play in the NHL.

Not one player from 1976 is among the 68 candidates who will participate in the Olympic selection process during the National Sports Festival at Colorado Springs, July 24-Aug. 1. There is a wealth of talent in the group, however and barring wholesale defections to the pros the future is a bright one.

Eleven hopefuls were members of the U.S. team in the recent World Championships at Moscow and Brooks expects them to form the nucleus of the 26-man team to be chosen at Colorado Springs.

The man expected to handle the key role for the U.S. is goalie Jim Craig, the Boston University All-America. But nine other netminders have Olympic hopes, including Minnesota's Steve Janaszak, most valuable player in the NCAA Tournament.

Brooks, who has taken a year's sabbatical from Minnesota to coach the U.S. team, finds himself with 10 members of his NCAA championship club among the Olympic candidates. It was not due to any lobbying on his part, since the players were chosen by a committee utilizing the NHL's Central Scouting reports.

Among the top defensemen are All-Americans Bill Baker of Minnesota and Jack O'Callahan of Boston University; Mike Ramsey of Minnesota. chosen to the NCAA tourney team; Ken Morrow of Bowling Green, an all-Central Collegiate choice; Jim Kern of Providence and Les Auge, who played in the Central League as an amateur tryout.

Forwards include Dave Delich of Colorado College, the leading collegiate scorer; all-Americas Mark Johnson of Wisconsin, Ralph Cox ofNew Hampshire, Mark Pavelich of Minnestoa - Duluth and Joe Mullen of Boston College; NCAA Tournament team honorees Eric Strobel and Steve Christoff of Minnesota, and Gopher Don Micheletti, the property of the Washington Capitals

The 68 candidates already are engaged in a dry-land training program. After the Sports Festival, the chosen 26 wil be given two weeks off and then it will unabated hockey until faceoff time at Lake Placid in February.

he team will assemble at Lake Placid late in August, then fly to Europe for three weeks of training and exhibition play. Returning home, they meet the Minnesota North Stars on Sept. 26, then play the Capitals (probablay at Glens Falls, N.Y.) and several other NHL teams. Exhibitions against minor pro and international opposition will give the team 55 games of experience before the Olympics.

The 12 Olympic entries will be divided into two groups at Lake Placid, each playing a round robin. After that initial phase, the third-place teams in each group will play for fifth, while the first and second teams in each group will engage in a round robin to determine the medals.

This is a change from previous years, when teams were seeded, played a one-game knockout to determine group placement and then went to round-robin play.

Brooks thinks the site at Lake Placid can work either to his team's benefit or detriment, depending on how his players react.

"There is added pressure on us in our home country," Brooks said. "It's a critical audience. But because we're inour home country, if we show we're deserving of support, we'll be assured of the backing we need to do well."