MONTREAL, SEPT. 10 -- The start of the 840-game National Hockey League season is still a month away. The Winter Olympics are set for February and about 90 Stanley Cup games will be played in April and May. Unless hockey fans pay close attention to their television sets in the next few days, however, they most likely will miss the highlight of the season.

Canada and the Soviet Union will begin a best-of-three series for the Canada Cup championship here Friday and meetings between the best players of those two nations invariably provide memories to be savored.

Ask a Canadian the hockey games that stick in his mind and he likely will mention the eighth game of the 1972 super series against the Soviets, won for Canada on Paul Henderson's goal, and the 1984 Canada Cup semifinal, when Mike Bossy beat the Soviets in overtime.

Ask a Soviet the same question and he likely will recall the third game of the 1979 Challenge Cup, when the Soviets embarrassed the NHL, 6-0, and the final of the 1981 Canada Cup, when the hosts' embarrassment was even more profound, 8-1.

Canadian winger Mike Gartner was asked today to pick the greatest game in which he has played and he replied, "I'd have to say that semifinal game in '84 against the Russians. That was the most exciting game I've ever played in."

Gartner, it will be recalled, also was a participant in Washington's four-overtime playoff defeat by the New York Islanders in April. But he said that playing for one's country against the best in the world was more special.

"This is the best competition in the world," Gartner said. "I love it. There are not many times over the course of your career that you're playing on a team that's best in the world at something. We know this is the best team we can put together and certainly the Russians are the best opponent we could play."

Both teams must cope with injury problems. Gartner has a pinched nerve in his left hand, but there are others in far worse shape, with virtually the whole Canadian right side wiped out.

Right wing Claude Lemieux was hobbling on crutches today, after suffering torn ligaments in his left ankle during Wednesday's 5-3 semifinal victory over Czechoslovakia.

Right wing Rick Tocchet skated briefly to test his bruised left knee and could see limited duty Friday, according to Coach Mike Keenan. Right wing Kevin Dineen did not skate and his sprained left ankle makes him very doubtful.

The Soviets are missing winger Sergei Svetlov, who suffered a broken left arm in Tuesday's 4-2 semifinal triumph over Sweden, and defenseman Igor Kravchuk, who has strained knee ligaments.

Still, as Soviet assistant coach Igor Dimitriev said today, "Injuries are commonplace in hockey. If they're not vicious, you accept them and move on." Asked his reaction to the absence of Lemieux, Dimitriev shrugged and said, "It means nothing. If you say {Wayne} Gretzky and Lemieux would not play, then it would make a difference."

Dimitriev declined to say whether Sergei Mylnikov or Evgeny Belosheikin would be the Soviet goalie. Mylnikov has been sensational, permitting seven goals in four games. Belosheikin was superb in Sunday's 3-3 tie against Canada and has the experience of facing the NHL All-Stars at Rendez-Vous 87.

Grant Fuhr will be in Canada's nets.