HARTFORD, CONN., SEPT. 3 -- Some people think nothing ever changes with the Soviet hockey team. Others note what they consider surprising differences from the past.

The Soviets will be here Friday for a Canada Cup contest against the U.S. team, then they will play the Canadians Sunday in Hamilton, Ontario, in the concluding round-robin game of the tournament.

Both games are sold out, an unusual situation for early September ice hockey that confirms the Soviets' status as the team everybody likes to watch -- and hate.

That is not exclusively a North American preoccupation. After Sweden upset the Soviets, 5-3, in their Canada Cup opener, Mats Naslund said: "That was great. We all admire the Russians, I guess, but we don't like them."

For a long time, hating the Soviets was about as rewarding as hating the Boston Celtics. But in recent years, starting with that remarkable U.S. victory in the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets have been vulnerable.

They were ousted from the 1984 Canada Cup in the semifinals by Canada, they finished behind Czechoslovakia in the 1985 World Championships and behind Sweden this year. At Rendez-Vous 87, they split two games with a hastily assembled National Hockey League team.

Before the 1980 Olympics, opponents tended to sit back on their skate blades and watch with awe while the Soviets followed some dazzling passing with a well-aimed shot. Now they jam up the middle, force the Soviets wide to areas where they do not like to shoot and bang them against the boards whenever possible.

The Soviets, despite their unmatched individual skills, often become frustrated and can be seen arguing with each other when the game plan is disrupted.

"If you discourage their first unit {center Igor Larionov, wingers Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov, defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov}, it has an effect on the team," said Dave King, Canada's Olympic coach who has studied the Soviets at length. "That's a good unit to discourage, but it can be done."

A much less talented Canadian team than the Canada Cup club managed to do it in Vienna in May, holding the Soviets to a scoreless tie. When Sweden also managed a tie, the Soviets were relegated to second place even though they went undefeated in their 10 games.

Defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov, the Washington Capitals draftee who played capably at Rendez-Vous 87, missed the World Championships because of a broken jaw and is not with the Canada Cup team, either.

Asked about Tatarinov, Soviet Coach Viktor Tikhonov first said he is "unreliable," a typical reference to inconsistent play rather than potential for defection, although there is some question about both aspects in free spirit Tatarinov's future. Later, Tikhonov changed lanes, to say that Tatarinov's jaw had not healed.

"I'll be happy to have him play for us," said Washington General Manager David Poile. "We'll come up with a mask to protect his jaw."

There have been hints from Soviet hockey officials that some Soviet players might be permitted to play in the NHL as early as next season, but they are not being taken seriously despite the Soviets' desire for dollars.

Igor Dimitriev, the Soviet assistant coach who is expected to replace Tikhonov after the Olympics, said at the start of the current tour that some top players might be allowed to come over. A week later, asked about the same subject after he most likely was given private advice, he replied: "I think not."