It was called a cross-check. It looked more like a beheading.

It occurred Monday night in Madison Square Garden in the third period of the game between the Flyers and the New York Rangers that would end in a 2-2 tie. It occurred after play clearly had been whistled dead.

The Flyers had just repulsed a Rangers rush. The puck was in the catching glove of goalie Ron Hextall. Standing in front of the net was Tomas Sandstrom, the Rangers' forward, for whom the Flyers have a passionate and publicly acknowledged dislike.

Just as the players were ready to break off and circle into position for a face-off, the Flyers' Dave Brown came steaming up the slot, with Sandstrom squarely in his cross hairs. Holding his stick in both hands, Brown caught Sandstrom under the jaw with it.

It was so sudden, so violent, that you expected Sandstrom's head to be lifted right off his shoulders. It was frightening enough when it happened, but when you see it replayed in slow motion, you wonder how Sandstrom avoided decapitation.

Sandstrom's head snapped back and he dropped to the ice as though he had been poleaxed by a Mike Tyson hook. Brown's defense is that he was "just doing my job." But considering that he had a running start, that play had been stopped, that he had flattened that very same player last March in a similar attack, and that he has never been a candidate for the Lady Byng Trophy or the Nobel Peace Prize, Brown's actions may well have been premeditated.

Brown was ejected from the game for what the officials called "intent to injure." It was every bit of that. When Brown high-sticked Sandstrom on March 17, he was suspended for five games. This time the penalty should be far more severe. What Brown did was indefensible and inexcusable.

The National Hockey League preaches against violence but never satisfactorily deters it. Now it has an opportunity to do something definitive about a subject it has always circled but never come to grips with.

What was almost as disturbing as the deliberate ferocity of Brown's assault was the initial reaction of the Flyers. The players say that Sandstrom only got what he deserved, that he is a cheap-shotter who routinely inserts his stick into impolite portions of an opponent's anatomy. But whatever sins Sandstrom may or may not be guilty of, an attempt to sever his head seems to represent the extreme in retaliation, even for hockey.

The Flyers are treating the incident with a lack of concern that borders on nonchalance. General Manager Bob Clarke says that the team's "defense" of Brown will include citations, complete with film evidence, of other violent hits this season that went unpenalized.

This is weak. Because someone else did not get caught in no way exonerates Brown. What is wrong is wrong, and what he did was wrong. Blatantly wrong.

In large areas of this country, where hockey is nonexistent, Brown's assault has been a staple of the 11 o'clock news, which only reinforces the public's opinion of the game in general, an opinion best summed up by Rodney Dangerfield's biting line: "I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out."

That isn't fair, but it is the image hockey is stuck with, and it is an image that it will never shed if such acts are not penalized severely enough to prevent repetition.

The knee-jerk reaction of Flyers apologists will be that there they go again, picking on the Flyers, wanting to make a martyr of Dave Brown, to offer him up as a sacrifice for all of hockey's transgressions. They will trot out that tired old nonsensical rebuttal that hockey needs violence, as a sort of perverse release valve.

In truth, hockey is a breathtaking sport with much to recommend it. But it is its own worst enemy. Already we have had a coach wrestle with a linesman in the runway between periods, a couple of major brawls, fans in Pittsburgh hosing down New Jersey Devils in the penalty box with beer, a goalie inflicting nerve damage on an opponent's foot by wacking it with a stick, and a frightening impersonation of The Headless Horseman.

And this season isn't even a month old. Is it any wonder that most of the country confuses hockey with roller derby?

Worse, all of this has occurred only weeks after the best possible example -- the Canada Cup. Every time you think the sport is about to reveal itself as ballet, it lapses back into burlesque.