On the door to the side entrance of Maple Leaf Gardens is a sign: "Sorry, Practice Is Closed." Undaunted, a cluster of fans waits in the gray drizzle outside. They know the players will be exiting soon enough. Two truant girls in school uniforms guard the door, trying to keep their autograph books dry.

Around the corner, scalpers deal in tickets for a regular-season game still 30 hours away.

Inside, practice is over. The celebrated arena, which has been sold out (through certainly not always full) for every Maple Leaf game since 1946, is quiet except for the Zamboni wheezing out to resurface the ice for an amateur game, one of many that keep the rink in use from early morning to late at night.

Maple Leaf Coach Mike Nykoluk -- a burly man with the sort of face you expect on the reviewing stand for the May Day parade in Red Square -- is following a very long cigar up the escalator to the team's executive offices. Through a cloud of smoke he mutters, "That was the worst practice i've seen in my life."

The Maple Leafs, a team of storied past and sorry present, stand 16th amont the 21 teams of the National Hockey League. Long gone are the glor days of Syl Apps and 11 Stanley Cups. In those ancient times, patrons who appeared in the expensive seats in attire not deemed suitable by the management were sent stern notes at home warning that their season tickets might not be renewed.

The kind of hockey the modern Leafs play makes Toronto fans long for yesteryear for maple syrup instead of maple sap. When weaker NHL clubs come to town, broad chairman stay home and give their tickets to the maid or friends of the children. They come in sneakers and no one bats an eve. Still, there is a waiting list of 6,800 applicants for season tickets. The wait lasts years.

Up in his private office, owner Harold Ballard, 78, is seated behind an imposing antique desk, a bearskin rug at his feet. The paneled walls are crammed with plaques, photos, cartoons, mementos, the spacious office cluttered with memorabilia. The occupant is clearly a fan.

Ballard says "the day of the layman owner who lives and dies for hockey is pretty much past." He is a dinosaur who would trade his place in the Hall of Fame for a Stanley Cup. He is also an old-fashioned promoter. He reads newspaper clippings as he talks, and is calculatedly quotable: profane, amusing, outrageous. He knows controversy is "good copy."

He repeats oft-expressed opinions that modern hockey players are overpaid and not as rugged as they should be ("Nobody likes to see guys playing like they have eggs in their pockets"), that Soviet teams should stay overseas ("Why should we pay them money so they can make bullets to shoot at us when they come back without an invitation?"), that the NHL has overexpanded, diluted its product, and fallen into the hands of lawyers and philistines.

"Hockey was not meant to be a Hollywood production. It takes men to play the game, and we should have men running it," he says, a chauvinist in more ways than one."Canadians think of hockey as a pure sport. They resent the intrusion of the money and show biz guys. As a matter of fact, i'd like to form an eight-team Canadian league, let all the American teams play in their own league, and we'll play them at the end of the season for the Stanley Cup."

He is asked if the Toronto fans are as interestes as they used to be.

"Definitely. They haven't lost faith. All you have to do is read some of the mail I get," he says. "Everybody that writes owns the Toronto Mpale Leafs, and they're the coach and general manager, too. I get a bushel basket of mail if we play a good game, and 10 bushels when we play a bad one . . . We ahve a rabid community of hockey fans here. They like hockey, and they like it played well. There are a lot of fights in the stands because somebody says something about one of the players that somebody else doesn't like, and answers him with a punch in the mouth.

"If you go downstairs when these guys are going out, there's always a lot of people there squealing and hollering. Every day. After the games, you can't get out of the building for people seeking autographs and pictures."

But Toronto fans also have a reputation for being savagely critical. When a Washington Capital was traded to the Maple Leafs last year he said he was looking forward to playing someplace where he would be instantly recognized on the street. He was reminded by a colleague that familiarity can be a curse as well as a blessing: "It's not so wonderful that everybody knows who you are if they all want to hit you with a rotten tomato."

"The kids here, as soon as they're born they become fans," says Ballard. "If it's a boy, his old man buys him a hockey stick. A girl learns because people here get hockey for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The first thing that happens in the morning is everybody fights over the sports page to see what happened in last night's games. You're taught by your parents. It's like a religion with the people here."

Who really shot J.R. Ewing? In Canada, at least, it was Guy Lafleur.

Knocked him off with a slpa shot.

On a recent and typical week, "Hockey Night in Canada" -- featuring three regional games, including Lafleur's Montreal Canadiens hosting the Philadelphia Flyers -- was the top-rated show on Canadian television, wiht a quarter-million more viewers than "Dallas," half a million more than "The Muppet Show" and 600,000 more than "M*A*S*h." It was No. 1 among male viewers 18 and over, as always; No. 7 among women 18 and over; 13th among teen-agers and 14th among children.

Since its debut on radio in 1931, "Hockey Night in Canada" has been a national obsession. Foster Hewitt, who did the original play-by-play of games from Maple Leaf Gardens and continued as the "voice of the Maple Leafs" into the 1970s, before giving way gradually to his son Bill, is a figure of almost mythic proportions: the Walter Cronkite of Canada, and then some.

If you took a random poll of Canadians and asked them to name a great Canadian, I bet Foster Hewitt's name would roll off more tongues than any other," says H.E. (Ted) Hough, president of Canadian Sports Network, which produces "Hockey Night in Canada." "His may be the best-known name this country ever had."

During World ywar II, "Hockey Night in Canada" took to referring to itself as "a national institution from coast to coast." That was no idle boast, but a simple fact. And so it was continued since the series went on television in 1954. At 8 p.m. in the East, 7 p.m. in Winnipeg, 6 p.m. in Calgary, 5 p.m. in Vancouver, other activities slow and TV screens glow.

"More Canadians watch hockey -- in the streets, at rinks and on television -- than engage in any other single public activity. More Canadians watch hockey now than go to church," noted Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane in their 1972 book, "The Death of Hockey."

"'Hockey Night in Canada' really is hockey night in Canada. We schedule our lives around it.During elections, Canadian political parties tell their canvassers not to knock on doors during hockey games, because to interrupt a hockey fan at his pleasure is almost certainly to lose his vote. At playoff time, Canadian churches hold their services early so their congregations can get home in time for the Sunday afternoon game. And at Canadian universities, where final examinations and playoffs have a tendency to coincide, there is an inevitable exodus from libraries and study halls just before game time, even scholarly discipline having its limits . . . A Montreal taxi driver will tell you that on Saturday nights he can practically set his watch by the slack period that begins with the opening face-off at eight o'clock and ends when the game is over around 10:30."

"Hockey Night in Canada" jockeys with familiar, U.S.-made sitcoms and serials for the top ratings during most of the NHL regular season, but from the middle of March through the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs, its audience builds and it takes over as the undisputed no. 1 program.

The largest audiences for NHL games were the sixth and seventh games of the 1973 Stanley Cup final series between Montreal and Chicago, which attracted 9,317,600 and 9,477,000 viewers, respectively. The final game of the 1972 Canada-U.s.s.r. Challenge Series was watched by more than 10 million people, or nearly half the men, women and children in Canada.

Over the years, "Hockey Night in Canada" has been delayed occasionally by labor disputes, briefly interrupted by news bulletins, but never preempted for any broadcast deemed more important. Says Frank Selke, Jr., vice president of Canadian Sports Network, "No one of sufficient importance has ever died on a Saturday night, and in Canada, probably no one would dare."

M.H. (Lefty) Reid, curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame at the Canadian National Exibition grounds on the Toronto waterfront, got his nickname from softball and bowling, but says "I played hockey in the sense that all Canadian kids play hockey. I wasn't very good, but I played at it."

Reid grew up on a farm in Leamington, Ontario, 33 miles from Windsor, not far from Detroit, but he could have been speaking for generations of Canadians:

"We played outdoors, on the pond or any strip of ice we could find. Saturdays, we played all day. Sundays we went to church, ran home and ate lunch as fast as we could, jumped on the bike and got back to the pond.

"We could skate for about four hours until it got dark. We'd stop in the middle, go into the barn and sit down on some straw, loosen the skates and rub our feet until we got enough feeling back in them to go out and skate again. I think that was typical, at least for country boys. There were more rural kids than city kids in those days. Skating was fun. Hockey was our recreation in the winter.

"I have been a hockey and baseball nut since I was 7 years old. That's the year we got our radio. We listened to Foster Hewitt do play-by-play of Maple Leaf hockey games on Saturday night, and Ty Tyson doing Detroit Tiger baseball. I can still give you the lineup of the 1934 Maple Leafs, and most of the other five teams that were in the National Hockey League at the time. So can a lot of other Canadians. Life was simpler then."

How important is hockey to Canada?

"I think that short of war, it is the greatest unifying force in this country, bar none," says Reid. "You only have to go back to 1972 , the challenge series against the Russians, to see that. Practically every school and business in Canada was at a standstill when the eighth and decisive game was on; television from Moscow. They said you could have fired a cannon down Bay Street, Toronto's Wall Street, and not hit anything that day.

"Hockey is one thing all Canadians know about. In a country that has a lot of geographic, cultural and political differences, a lot of controversial subjects, a good hockey player is a good hockey player. People can agree on that who won't agree on practically anything else."

Newspapers are always a good reflection of what is important to the people who live where they are published. Pick up a Canadian newspaper and the influence of hockey is inescapable.

In season, the sports pages are dominated by it. The NHL is covered in excuciating detail. In the provinces, local junior and minor league teams receive saturation attention as well.

Hockey disputes or offbeat stories -- such as the recent effort of a girl to gain acceptance to a previouosly all-boys league -- is page 1 news. Political stories contain hockey metaphors. General interest and "people" columns are full of notes about hockey players who are as familiar as any other public figures, referred to almost as members of the family.

Even the arts and leisure page can not escape the sport. A satirical revue currently playing in Toronto is entitled, "Two Minutes for High Shticking."

How important is hockey to Canada?

This happens to be Gary Green, the youthful coach of the Washington Capitals, talking about a boyhood not so long ago in another Ontario farming village called Brownsville, just outside the metropolis of Tillsonburg (population: 7,000). But he, too, could have been speaking for millions of Canadians in any of 10 far-flung provinces.

"When I was a kid, hockey was almost a family rutual," he said. "Every Saturday night, for sure, you were in front of the TV set watching "Hockey Night in Canada." Every now and then you got an opportunity, even thought it was a school night, to go out and watch the local junior B team play. That was the next best thing to the National Hockey League for a small-town guy.

"And of course, you were involved in hockey yourself. You played a couple of times a week in organized minor hockey, and besides that, every day you came home from school, grabbed your skates and headed out to the pond. Even when the ice was gone, you played ball hockey in the street or the church yard.

"My brother played, I played, my father coached and managed minor hockey teams. Hockey was something a lot of people's lives revolved around. . . My grandfather still has this little radio, and for as long as I've known him, he'd lie down on his couch after dinner, put the radio beside his ear, and listen to whatever hockey game he could get."

George Green is about 80 now. He still lives in Brownsville, on the farm "He has milk cows, plus some cash crops -- corn, wheat, oats," said grandson Gary, 27, the youngest coach in the NHL. "And hockey."

Browse through a Canadian bookstore, and there are piles of volumes about hockey: old titles and new, hard-covers and paperbacks, fact and fiction, yearbooks, biographies, training manuals, memoirs by the dozen, tips from current stars, rising stars, faded stars.

A coffee table book entitled "The Montreal Canadiens: A Hockey Dynasty" is a best seller at $19.95, as was a similar volume published in 1977 to clebrate the 50th anniversary of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The children's section features "Peter Puck's Greatest Moments in Hockey" and "Peter Puck and the Stolen Stanley Cup", popular works that have as their protagonist "the imp of the ice, the world's most famous talking hockey puck."

An outsider half expects to move on to the novels and find a revision of Tolstoy's masterpiece, renamed "War and Pucks."

How important is hockey to Canada?

Surely, if unofficially, it is the national pastime. But it is even more than that. In a way, it is the Canadian metaphysic. Perhaps as much as any game can be, it is part of the social fabric and value system of a country. It has caused riots and helped unify a vast and diverse land.

"It's the one common ground for French and English, and maybe in that sense it's more important now, given the separatist sentiment in parts of the country, than it ever has been," says Dave Dryden, former NHL goaltender, now coach and general manager of the major junior team in Petersborough, Ontario. "Hockey is not just a sport here, it's an important part of Canadian culture."

Canada's infatuation with hockey has to do with geography and climate, the fact that most of Canada's 22 million people live in a snow belt roughly 200 miles deep, above the 49th parallel. In a land where winter is long, cold and often harsh, hockey has been called "the dance of life." Played the way Canadians appreciate it, it is a swift, thrilling and physical ballet on ice.

It has to do with history, a heritage of boys skating on frozen ponds and rivers, then huddling with their fathers and grandfathers, and with sis and mom and grandma, too, around a hot stove on Saturday night, listening to scratchy accounts of celebrated confrontations between the Montreal Canadiens ("The Flying Frenchmen," as they were called) and the Toronto Maple Leafs ("the Skating WASPs," as everyone thought of them, even if nobody said so).

It has to do with escape from a hard way of life. Many of the best players came from nasty little mining towns on the border of nowhere, and hockey was the only way to a better life.

It has to do with longing for a national identity in a country that has harbored ambivalent feelings about its economic, social, and psychological dependence on foreign powers: first Great Britain, later the United States. For a long time, Canadians didn't consider themselves very good at anything, but nobody could touch them at playing hockey. At least they thought so until the Soviets gave them a painfully rude awakening.

It has to do with the war years, when tapes of "Hockey Night in Canada" were flown by Royal Canadian Air Force planes to Canadian troops overseas, and served as their most tangible link with home.

In many communities the local rink is the heart and nerve center of activity during the winter. In towns where it is impossible to buy a meal after 10 p.m., the rink is open 24 hours. Leagues for tykes (age 4 to 6), novices or "squirts" (6 to 8), atoms (8-10), peeweees (10-12), bantams (12-14), midgets (14-16), juniors (16-20), seniors (20-up), and old-timers (35-and-over) keep the ice occupied every minute, with brief timeouts for resurfacing. Otherwise sane people think nothing of setting their alrams for 2 a.m. so they can make a game at 3.

In cities with good cable TV systems, it is possible to watch three or more NHL games in an evening, and many people do.

Canadians never seem to tire of talking about hockey. Go to Montreal, and the urgent topic is what is the matter with the beloved Canadiens. Go to Ottawa, capital of the Dominion, and the talk of the town is what Phil Esposito said on the "Sports Hot Seat" show. (One recent weekend he said that before the 1972 U.S.S.R.-Canada series, which jolted and then reaffirmed national pride, scouts told Team Canada that the Russians couldn't skate, couldn't pass, and their goalie Tretiak couldn't stop a balloon.)

"Hockey bridges not only the cultural and topographical distances between us, but the social and economic distances as well," wrote Kidd and Macfarlane in their book. "In another country, a bank teller and a bank president might discuss, for want of anything else, the weather. Here they would talk about last night's hockey game. Hockey is the Canadian universal, neither sport of kings nor of peasants. It is everybody's sport, no matter what their class."

"The Death of Hockey," published in 1972, was a brilliant, provocative, controversial and highly political book, arguing that the national religion had been desecrated and sold out to television and U.S. business interests. It was almost a Marxist-Leninist polemic, urging "hockey lovers of Canada unite, you have nothing to lose but the California Golden Seals."

That such a fascinating treatise should be written at all says something about hockey's exalted place in the Canadian scheme of things. It was not a popular book, and Kidd -- an outstanding runner who went on to teach political science at the University of Toronto -- was largely dismissed as a radical rascal who had played left wing too long without a helmet. Still, the book is an eloquent expression of what hockey traditionally has meant to Canada and Canadians.

"Canadian fathers brag that their sons learn to skate before they walk, a revealing lie, and it is the deprived Canadian boy who does not once get a hockey stick for Christmas," wrote Kidd and Macfarlane. "The game is a national puberty rite, performed by wobbly-legged kids for congregations of rink-side parents. What is Canada? A country of 250,000 kids getting up at 7 o'clock on Saturday morning for a game in a dingy concrete block arena, white and blue Canadiens hockey socks will be real instead of the kind anyone can buy out of Eaton's catalogue.

"A boy learns more than stickhandling at the community arena. Hockey, as a unique expression of our culture, is also a vessel for its values, passing them from father-to-son from one generation to the next. In the corners and along the boards, in the dressing rooms and on the bench, in the clash of body against body, wood and ice, a boy learns our attitudes toward team play, fair play and dirty play, towards winning and losing, tolerance and prejudice, success and failure. . . It is through hockey that a Canadian boy first perceives his geographic horizons. He knows there is another part of town because he has played hockey there, and that Canada stretches across the prairies and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific because that is where Vancouver is, and Vancouver has Dale Tallon (Vancouver's No. 1 pick, second pick overall in 1970 NHL draft)."

As enamored of hockey as Canada is today, the preoccupation is nothing compared with what is was 60 or 70 years ago. Then people used to trudge miles throught the snow to watch local games. Before there was radio, people would stand in numbing cold for hours outside telegraph offices, waiting for scores -- just scores, no details -- of distant Stanley Cup games, reminds a two-record album tracing the 50-year history of "Hockey Night in Canada."

The passion for hockey has waned with a changing lifestyle, but interest remains almost unimaginable to non-Canadians. The very fact that a record commemorating great moments of "Hockey Night in Canada" is so popular attests to that. An American carrying one throught the Toronto Airport recently was astonished at the reactions it elicited. "That's a great album," said a woman security officer, about 25, as her matronly partner nodded in agreement. "Is that the historical album, with Foster Hewitt?" inquired a U.S. customs inspector. "Do you know where I could buy that?"

Perhaps no single image captures the conditions that gave rise to such an ethos better than the vignette with which Kidd and Macfarlane began their book:

". . . It is 9 o'clock at night, and the train has stopped in a small town in northwestern Ontario. The wood frame station is the only building larger than a house. Not many people live here, probably fewer this year than last, and from the train window you can see the houses boarded up. It is below zero outside, a blizzard has dumped four feet of clean snow, and the town probably has never looked better than it does now through the darkness and the snow and the steam that drifts up from the train past your window. It is quiet. There are only two signs of life, only one if you do not count the presence of the train which will be somewhere else in 15 minutes. A few hundred yards from the tracks, cleared of snow and lit up like a small-town used car lot, there is a hockey rink -- old boards carefully nailed together to form a wooden rectangle around a sheet of natural ice. A dozen men and boys, oblivious to the cold and the town and the train, are playing hockey."