The game had been over for 20 minutes but the Minnesota North Stars' locker room still was overrun by reporters. They gathered in small knots around the evening's heroes, each looking for a nugget that might turn a story from bland to brilliant.

The average group consisted of three or four writers perhaps one camera crew. Except around Steve Christoff's locker. The crowd there was so thick it looked like a reunion of former spouses of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mickey Rooney.

In the middle of all the commotion Christoff, still in uniform, sat calmly, patiently answering each question in no apparent hurry. Having played so key a role in the U.S. Olympic hockey team's stunning gold metal at Lake Placid, Christoff is used to being surrounded. He has been asked everything from his favorite color to his solution for the Iranian crisis.

"You never get completely used to it," said Christoff, whose North Stars trail the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1, going into tonight's fourth Stanley Cup semifinal game in Minnesota. "But you come to sort of expect it. Then you can handle it."

At first glance there appears to be little that Christoff cannot handle. In the last year he has played on the NCAA champion University of Minnesota hockey team; the Olympic champion U.S. hockey team; has broken into the NHL and stepped right into a new position with ease; scored eight goals in Stanley Cup play, a record for a rookie and played a major role in the North Stars' quarterfinal upset of the defending champion Montreal Canadiens.

But unlike many of his Olympic teammates, who say they still are dazed by what has happened to them, Christoff appears to have a firm grip on reality.

"I'm not dazed or anything; if I was I don't think I could play very effectively," he said. "You can't live your life on what was in yesterday's newspaper.

"The way I look at it I'm a position you don't get to very often. We have a chance to do something special here, like with the Olympic team. This is the kind of opportunity you don't want to blow when you get it."

Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor will talk for hours on almost any subject. Make that days when it comes to Christoff and his role in the sudden maturation of his team.

"When Stevie joined us (March 1) we were going through a down phase," Sonmor said. "People have us labeled as a one line team (Bobby Smith, Al MacAdam, Steve Payne) and were playing us that way.

"When we put Stevie on the line with Mike (Eaves) and (Ron) Zanussi, they clicked right away. That not only gave us a strong second line but took a lot of the pressure off the first line and made them that much more effective."

Ironically, they clicked even though Christoff, a life-long center, was playing at left wing, with Eaves centering the line.

"Steve and I both like to sort of zig-zag in and out of the middle anyway so it was never really a problem," Eaves said. "He's got such a hard shot that anytime you get him the puck from the blue line in he can score."

Philadelphia goalie Peter Peeters found that out quickly in the first game of this series when Christoff took a pass from Eaves, glided across the blue line and fired a 50-foot shot that was in the back of the net almost before Peeters could move his arm.

"I came into this league confident I could play," said Christoff, who at 6-feet-2 and 205 pounds can take care of himself in the corners."I didn't really think this much would happen this fast though."

Although only 22, Christoff is no wide-eyes rookie.His march to the NHL was a calculated one. He played for three years at Minnesota under Herb Brooks, eschewing an earlier pro shot because he didn't feel he was ready and because he preferred to play at Minnesota, near his home in Richfield, Minn., rather than in the minor leagues.

Then came the Olympic experience. Again with Brooks as coach, Christoff never had to leave his home area. Not he is buying a town house within shouting distance of the Metropolitan Sports Center, the North Stars' home.

"I've probably had the easiest time of all the guys on the Olympic team because I've never had to leave my home to play hockey," he said. "The guys here have been pretty good about everything. They kid me sometimes about being our Olympic hero and all but it's no big deal. I think they have put themselves in my place and decided not to ride me."

Not so for opponents. In one of his first NHL games the New York Rangers' Dave Maloney drew Christoff into [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] of guys wanted to test me right away, Christoff said, smiling at the thought. "If you take a lot of it [WORD ILLEGIBLE] you aren't going to make it in this league. So you might as well learn to deal with it early."

Christoff has dealt with ease with everything the NHL has handed out.

"I knew Stevie was a good player," Sonmor said. "But I'd be a liar if I told you I thought he'd adapt to the league as quickly as he has."

"When people talk about the Olympics (which they always do) I just try to say that what's done is done and I'm thinking about the North Stars," Christoff said. "It's a new challenge. Right now I'm just trying to established myself."