The United States hockey team likes to call itself The Flying Circus, and just before practice not long ago its special clown, Dave Christian, appeared on the ice with several sticks taped together.

The weapon nearly reached from one side of the rink to the other, and as Christian swung it back and fourth he said, "This is how we're gonna check the Russians."

That might not be nearly enough, as Christian and everyone else with the slightest affection for hockey realizes. But those of us with even less enthusiasm for the NHL version are drawn to the sport here, to the point of being riveted in attention to Christian and the other Americans after the way they checked the Czechs.

Athletic America awoke this morning still agog that its collection of cherubic-looking collegians and professional rejects had mauled a Czechoslovakian team that allegedly spends every waking moment slapping pucks and was second favorite to win the Olympic gold here.

The U.S. team clearly thought it had a chance against the Czechs. But 7-3? And against a team that had scored more goals than Norway had shots on goal in an 11-0 rout earlier in the week?

The Americans looked as though they were playing their older brothers -- or their uncles in some instances, for the Czechs have several veterans in their early 30s. The vagabond U.S. team is the youngest in these Olympics.

But plucky is not the proper description for the U.S. team, not after all that vigorous hitting Thursday night, especially not after Bill Baker sent a swinging Czech sailing over the boards and into his own bench.

"That was pretty fun," said Mark Johnson, the 22-year-old the Czechs never could catch, who scored perhaps the one untainted U.S. goal and who was left flat on the ice for several minutes by a defenseman determined to get a pound of flesh after suffering a ton of embarrassment.

"Caught me on the back of the shoulder," said Johnson, who needs a razor, but not often. "With his stick. It tore some muscle. But I'll be back. They won't lose me that quickly.

"Other guys are hurting, too. But you can't take two weeks off now. Not after all that work. Not for a once-in-a-lifetime chance. When the adrenaline gets flowing, you can block a lot of things out of your mind."

The U.S. coach, Herb Brooks, encourages this attitude, in fact seems to demand it at times, for he said today, "The most important thing is playing hurt in the playoffs."

To his players, Brooks talks of "controlled enthusiasm," although they seem to translate that as meaning controlled frenzy. To one set of relatively unsophisticated hockey eyes, it seems to mean playing hard without being vicious -- and certainly the only way the U.S. can hope to beat such a gifted team as the Czechs.

The Soviets play the ultimate in cerebral hockey, not the savage, slapshot brand polluting most of the NHL. And the Czechs are not far behind.

How can a reasonable person not admire a team whose major fault at times is passing too much?

What the Czechs sometimes seemed to need against the U.S. was a greedy capitalist who would take the open 10-foot shot instead of trying to pass to a teammate for a five-footer.

"That's probably true," said the U.S. goalkeeper, Jim Craig. "They do not throw just anything at you. They do not waste a shot."

Craig was the one U.S. player who could be both giddy and realistic today.

More than anyone, he realized that most of the American goals would have been stopped by a competent goalkeeper, that the Czechs today might be considering using Jiri Kralik as a biathlon target.

That hardly dampened his spirits, for Craig and the others have endured a gypsy life, gone four-to-a-room every now and then to save expenses to prepare for just this moment. They are in fine position to duplicate the 1972 team's showing and win a silver medal.

This Olympic ice hockey draw is only slightly less complex than the NFL playoff formula. It is possible to have a game that decides the gold medal but not a gold-medal game. On faith, patriots are advised to root for the Czechs the remainder of the tournament.

"We have to be careful now," Craig said. "We won three out of a possible four points (with a tie against Sweden included) when we weren't supposed to. Now we're expected to beat the rest of the teams in our bracket, Norway (Saturday), West Germany and Romania.

"We can control our own destiny. If we lose (a chance at a medal), we'll have blown it ourselves. And there's always a possibility of running into a hot goalie, somebody who could quiet all those fans.

"There is nothing worse than a numb crowd."

There is a basis for confidence in addition to the three other round-robin foes being lightly regarded.

"Every period we've played has been better than the one before it," Craig said. "I think we're just starting to realize how good we are."

Craig hopes the coach, Brooks, finally realizes how good he is. Or at least stops being so publicly critical, a habit that encourages talk that Craig melts in important games.

"There's enough pressure on me without his adding any," Craig said. " . . . I think Herbie tends to sometimes overexpect from me."

It was suggested that Brooks scolds Craig as a way of motivating other players less sensitive.

"Might be," Craig said. "But he's driving me crazy with it."

Their fans, if not the U.S. players, look forward to a possible matchup with the Soviets, leaders in the other bracket. If they meet, it likely would be for the gold medal. Less than a week ago, the Soviets spanked the U.S., 10-3, in Madison Square Garden.