While a Detroit jury awarded $850,000 in damages yesterday to a hockey player for an on-ice fight in 1978, the National Hockey League Players Association reached an agreement with the NHL on a new system of equalization for free agency.

Dennis Polonich, formerly a Detroit Red Wing, had filed suit against Wilf Paiement and his former team, the Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils), after an Oct. 25, 1978, incident in Detroit, in which Polonich suffered a broken nose, concussion and several cuts from Paiement's stick.

The suit is the first of its kind in the NHL. Polonich's attorney said Paiement had used excessive force in the fight, but Paiement contended that when Polonich shot the puck up the ice, he struck Paiement on the mouth to prevent being checked.

Paiement contended he was acting in self defense when he hit Polonich in the face with his stick.

Polonich, who now plays for the Red Wings farm team in Glens Falls, N.Y., told the jury he did not recall specifics of the incident, but that it had scarred him physically and psychologically.

He said people sometimes mock his face, scarred in the fight. An Ann Arbor plastic surgeon said repairs to Polonich's face would cost between $2,000 and $3,000.

After three hours of deliberation yesterday, the U.S. District Court verdict awarded Polonich $500,000 in actual damages and $350,000 in exemplary damages.

Polonich called the verdict "incredible. It's like winning at hockey.

"I speculated, but I never dreamed it would be this much," he told Associated Press.

Paiement's lawyer, Bruce Franklin, said he did not know if the verdict would be appealed. He was not sure whether the Rockies' insurance company or Paiement, who now plays for Quebec, was liable for the damages, further complicating the matter.

"Complicated" could also describe the collective bargaining agreement to be officially approved by the players association yesterday in Toronto.

In the pact that should stay in effect for five years (but can be ended a year early by either side with a year's notice), compensation for teams which lose players to free agency will be based upon categories determined by salary offers made to those players.

The players association and team owners had been at odds over such compensation in trying to work out a new long-term agreement.

The new agreement requires no compensation for a player 33 years or older who changes teams, but gives his former team the right to keep his contract by matching the new club's offer.

Players who have less than five years professional experience or are age 24 or less are covered by the present form of compensation, by which the new team compensates the former one with players, draft choices or cash, all subject to binding arbitration.

But all other free agents will be categorized, based upon the salaries offered by either their present or prospective clubs.

If the new team offers a player more than $150,000 per season, that figure would become the deciding factor; if the former club's offer is less, it will determine his trade-in value.

Players offered up to $85,000 will require no compensation to their former club. Offers of $85,000 to $99,000 will bring their teams a third-round draft choice. Those offered $100,000 to $124,999 give their old teams second- and third-round draft picks in return.

Compensation escalates to keep pace with the amount offered to the player. Clubs losing players who are offered more than $125,000 will have the option of taking players from the new club, and that team will be permitted to protect four to eight players, depending on the size of the contract being offered.