It doesn't seem that long, almost eight years since the upset of upsets. But when the United States won its gold medal in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games -- stunning the Soviet team in the semifinals -- Corey Millen was a teen-ager listening on radio back in Minnesota and Mike Richter was a kid playing street hockey in front of his home near Philadelphia. Now it's their turn; Millen and Richter play for the current U.S. Olympic hockey team.

The Olympians, following three one-goal defeats by National Hockey League teams and a visit with President Reagan yesterday at the White House, will take on the Capitals in an exhibition game tonight at Capital Centre at 8. Fresh-faced and full of hope, these youngsters will give fans two teams to root for.

"Right now, it's conditioning and a lot of hard work," said Millen, a University of Minnesota product who played on the 1984 Olympic team that finished seventh in Sarajevo. "Everybody on this team is a quality player. Expectations are high."

"We have to come together as a team," said Richter, tonight's scheduled goaltender. "A 60-game exhibition season may seem like a lot, but it isn't much time. The Russians have been together how many years? We have to do it in six months."

Both Millen, a pepperpot at 5 feet 7, 165 pounds, and Richter, who has completed two years at the University of Wisconsin, are the property of the New York Rangers, Millen having been a third-round draft choice in 1982 and Richter a second-round pick in 1985. It's possible both could be in Rangers uniforms late this season. Calgary, then New York. Their lives are filled with expectations.

The same can be said for others. The Rangers also own the rights to winger Kevin Miller, younger brother of the Capitals' Kelly. Perhaps the Rangers' brightest hope off the Olympic team is defenseman Brian Leetch, No. 1 draft pick of '86, out of Boston College. In all, the Rangers have the rights to six Olympians. "I've heard that when things are going well and you get the chance, New York's the best place to play," said Millen. "If it's not going well, though, it could be tough."

This Olympic team is different in at least one respect from past U.S. teams. In 1984, minor league professionals were eligible for the U.S. team. This time, rules have been further relaxed and NHL players also are eligible. NHL teams, however, are reluctant to part with players for the duration of Olympic training, and the U.S. Olympic concept still focuses on amateurs. As a result, only two Olympians have brief NHL experience: goalie Chris Terreri with New Jersey and Capitals winger Steve Leach.

"With the trades, Washington is pretty deep on the right side," said Leach. "On a realistic level, I'd only be there because of an injury. I felt I would spend a lot of time in Binghamton. I felt that even when this possibility began to materialize at the end of last season. I decided playing for the Olympic team was an opportunity I didn't want to turn down."

Capitals General Manager David Poile agreed. Poile said the experience could help Leach eventually to become a full-time Capital. "We're looking at this as a learning process {for him}," said Poile, "and a little bit of an experiment," to see how Leach progresses compared with Capital prospects in the minors.

Leach said it would be a strange feeling playing tonight against his once and future teammates, but that flying into Washington yesterday reminded him that he wants very much to play a significant role some day with the Capitals. "I still want to be a Cap -- that's for sure," he said.

Despite such talent on the U.S. team, the future of the Olympians is unpredictable. The 1960 and 1980 gold-medal teams raise the possibility that anything can happen in the Olympics. When Mike Eruzione's shot beat Vladimir Myshkin for the winning goal against the Soviets in 1980, followed by a heart-stopping victory over Finland, the '80 Olympians truly became "America's Team."

But at this time eight years ago, no one could have anticipated it. Same thing now.

"This is an important time for us to find out what we can and can't do, our strengths and weaknesses," said Dave Peterson, the head coach who coached a Minneapolis high school team for 27 years until 1984 and since, among other assignments, has coached the 1985, 1986 and 1987 U.S. national teams. "Our biggest strengths are total balance and depth. We need to score more goals. But what hockey team doesn't?"

So far, the Olympians' record is 3-6-2. In the past week, they have played well in losing to the Rangers at Lake Placid, 5-4; to the Flyers in Philadelphia, 3-2, and to Buffalo in Rochester, 4-3. They'll play five more NHL teams after tonight. Said Millen about the possibility of beating an NHL team, "Maybe it's a mental thing right now. We should beat these teams. We can beat these teams."

To have been close three times is something. Eight years ago, Richter recalled, "We were outside playing street hockey. Then we came in and watched the game against Finland on television. Then we were back outside, pretending to be {U.S. goalie Jim} Craig and {Soviet goalie Vladislav} Tretiak."

Last Sunday night, Richter skated out onto the Spectrum ice with the Olympians to face the Flyers. Richter comes from Flourtown, Pa., and relatives and friends were among the 12,000 spectators. The kid had grown up, and it was a night he wouldn't forget. The team played well. He played well. And even if he was beaten with a late goal, Richter said, "I learned something." That's what the Olympians are supposed to be doing now, learning.