When Murray Costello, head of the Canadien Amateur Hockey Association, talks about a hockey renaissance under way in Canada, most people scratch their heads and say they didn't realize it had died.

It didn't, of course.

When he talks about a hockey renaissance now, Costello is referring to a resurgence in the amateur game that could eventually have a profound effect on professional hockey.

He is talking about recovery from a lull in hockey interest that occurred in the '70s, a lull that was rooted in more than the simple fact of changing times and expanding horizons.

For generations, hockey has been Canada's most cherished sport, an important part of Canadian life, a subject on which practically every man, woman and child from Newfoundland to British Columbia is conversant, and opinionated.

But inevitably, it is not the compelling, life and death obsession it once was, because times and life styles have changed.

"Nowadays there is so much mobility, so many more diversions. Transportation is asvailable, movies and television are available, even girls are available. That wasn't the case in my day," says W. E. (Ted) Hough, president of Canadian Sports Network. "There is a rock concert in Toronto every week. When I was a kid, Tommy Dorsey came to town once a year. Otherwise, there was hockey."

No longer do boys sleep in a chilly clubhouse beside an outdoor rink so that they can drop the puck at dawn's first light. No longer do they yearn for nothing more from Santa Claus than a stick made to specifications, rather than one father cut from a tree branch selected because it was approximately the right shape. No longer is hockey the driving force, the passion it once was.

"Hockey cannot be what it once was in Canada, because once that's all there was," says Costello. "You played every minute you could, and on Saturday night you listened to the National League on the radio. That was recreation."

Canadians' passion for hockey, if not their interest in it, waned for many reasons. Three stand out.

The NHL became less interesting.It expanded too far and too fast, destroying intense rivalries that were the source of so much passion. The destroying intense rivalries that were the source of so much passion.The quality of play was diluted, and the style became tiresome: too much reliance on fighting and goonery, not enough on skill and finesse.

The Soviet Union dispot enough on skill and finesse.

The Soviet Union dispelled the myth that the only real hockey was played in Canada, and made it impossible for anyone to pretend that the Stanley Cup was the true world championship.

Television, by focusing attention on the major leagues, diminished interest in minor league, semipro, and other "local" hockey teams.

Not so obvious, but just as important, was the fact that participation in hockey became too organized, too structured. For many boys who weren't good enough to play at a highly competitive level, the fund went out of the game. They played hockey because it was expected of them, not for the sheer, unbridled pleasure it had given their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In a way, hockey bogged down under the weight of its own importance.

"My kids started playing organized minor hockey when they were five, and they were burned out and tired of it by the time they were 12," a Toronto mother of two teen-age sons said recently.

"They were too restricted and regimented. There was no skill-building, so they didn't improve. They just played games and games and games, and half the time there was more fighting than skating. Hockey, as it used to be played, had gotten corrupted. If you stop and think about it, the game my kids played indoors didn't have too much in common with the one played on ponds years ago."

She was right. The game had changed. Once it had been bruising -- renowned for eliminating the teeth early in life, and leaving other battle scars -- but clean and physically pleasurable. The sensations of speed and controlling the puck at high speed were paramount. Hockey was chess on ice, with human pieces, not an excuse for brawling.

The game known as "shinny" -- a kind of free-form hockey that accentuated the pure joys of skating and puckhandling on a rink of natural ice without any lines -- had all but disappeared, giving way to a Roller Derby mentality.

Now shinny is coming back.

There is a movement in Canada to revive forgotten notions of hockey.

"In a way, I think the exposure to international hockey in the late '60s and '70s -- especially the Challenge Series against the Russians in 1972 and the Canada Cup in 1976 -- spurred a new kind of interest," says Costello.

"Up to that point we felt that hockey was all ours, no one could tell us anything about it, but we suddenly realized that the Europeans, even though they hadn't been at it as long, were doing a lot of things right.

"Now we are making some changes in our game that were a long time coming. We went for about 50 years with one approach. We put the kids out on the ice, made them do what we call stop-starts -- simple sprints back and forth to get in condition -- and then just dropped the puck and played the game. Canadian hockey had become tradition-bound. It took the Europeans and even the Americans to show us there are other ways.

"Now we are making some rules changes that wouldn't have been possible a few years ago. A year ago we went national with a rule to eliminate all body contact in all our competitive leagues from peewee (ages 10-12) down. That wasn't easy to bring about, because the old guard, with the macho approach, said that if you take the ruggedness out , you're not a man anymore.

"But even in the sort time we've had that rule in effect, it has shown a real return in the sense that kids are playing without intimidation. Consequently, they're playing a more artistic type of hockey, with the emphasis on skating and passing and finesse, like some of the Europeans can do."

There also has been a return to teamwork and strategy in the younger age groups, a turn away from rugged individualism.

"Our society and our media have focused so heavily on the superstar approach to our games that we had lost sight of the fact that hockey is a team game, and on one person -- not even Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard or Wayne Gretzky -- can accomplish anything alone," says Costello. "The Europeans brought that home, and now Canadian kids are starting to put less emphasis on thuggery. The big guys aren't getting all the notoriety anymore. Skill is beingt reasserted, and that's got to be a good thing.

"We've also experimented this year in our atom (ages 8 to 10) leagues with a free structure, a return to shinny. No lines, no rules, just divide however many players you've got into two teams and play. Skate, pass the puck, and try and get it into the net.

"There's really no reason for an 8-year-old to be playing the game along the rigid lines of the professionals, so we just let the kids go out there and get the enjoyment of handling the puck and skating. It also helps you take full advantage of precious ice time, because it doesn't matter if there are six or 16 kids on team, everybody gets to play.

"There's genuine interest on the part of the parents in these changes. Some people still complain, but I'm delighted and encouraged by the majority of comments we've received," Costello says.

"I think it's going to make a difference, because as long as kids are having fun, they'll stay wity it for a longer time. It will do wonders for recreational hockey, and will also produce more complete and talented pros in time."

Others have recognized the problems, which is an important step toward correcting them.

"Because hockey is so competitive in Canada, we tended to categorize kids early as 'all-star' or 'house league,' kind of varsity or intramural," says Dave Dryden, former NHL goaltender, now coach and general manager of the Peterborough Petes in the Ontario Hockey Association." Many kids, as soon as they were weeded out into the 'house league,' gave up the game. They saw no point of pursuing it. That's unfortunate. It meant that a lot of 12-year-olds thought they were washed up as hockey players, which is crazy. It's a good game to play whether you think you'll make it to the NHL or not.

"I think we suffer from ultraorganizing things. We need to get back to more sandlot sport, as you call it. We've got to get back to the point where we give people the opportunity to enjoy just shooting the puck against a wall, or skating on the pond. That will help the good, self-motivated players get better, and will keep the recreational players interested longer."

Although the number of players competing in formal, competitive leagues has remained relatively steady in the past decade, when correlated with a declining birth rate, there has been a dramatic surge of late in the number of recreational players, particularly in the old-timers (35-and-over) divisions.

"We have a big drop-off in registration at about age 14. The players who get to that age and don't have the ability or inclination to pursue hockey seriously tend to drop out," says Costello. But more and more of them are now picking it again around age 21, in strictly recreational leagues, and play for fun right into middle age. We have divisions now for men up to 60 years old. That's a new and remarkable phenomenon.

"Hockey is so popular in Canada, we've always had our full share of people trying it. Practically every boy has played at some level, and we've got growing interest in girls' and women's hockey, now, although the ardent feminists are clamoring for integrated hockey and don't want us to build a separate paticipation base for girls.

"Introducing people to hockey has never been a problem. It has been providing a structure that is enjoyable enough that people will stay with it that has been the challenge, and I think we're making great strides now.c

The renaissance of a sport already very much alive.