A miracle.

That's what it took in 1980 -- as genuine a sports miracle as there ever was -- for the United States hockey team to beat the Soviet Union and go on to win the gold medal in the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

Surely, it would take Miracle II for the Americans to repeat their gold medal performance in Calgary.

"It might be a minor miracle," acknowledged Todd Okerlund, a big right winger from the University of Minnesota. "After seeing the Canada Cup games -- and we all watched them -- we were kind of real quiet during the games. We left with our mouths down to our ankles. Yeah, I think definitely we have our work cut out."

Last September's Canada Cup featured the "real" Soviet players, the Olympic Games gold medal favorites who were barely edged by National Hockey League pros in a state-of-the-art best-of-three series. Most of those Soviet players will be in Calgary, not the ones on the Soviet "Select" team that lost six and tied one of eight games in December with the U.S. Olympians. The "Selects" were easily demoralized by brutal body checks; the "real" players won't be. That's why the U.S. players realize a repeat of 1980 would take "a minor miracle."

But that's what the Americans are aiming for as their opening Olympic faceoff nears. The U.S. players aren't conscious of 1980 only because they've been asked repeatedly about it. They knew about it before they were old enough to be interviewed. In 1980, they were at a very impressionable age when Al Michaels went wild, Jim Craig wrapped himself in an American flag and everyone learned how to pronounce and spell Mike Eruzione. It was the "Miracle on Ice."

"I sat there by the TV," said Okerlund, 23, recently, "watching the replay of the Russian game and I said, 'I want to be there in eight years. I want to be on that team.' For me, that's the way it was. And I think for a lot of guys on this team the '80 team had a big impact."

Mike Richter, one of the current U.S. goalies, was 13 in 1980, and after the Americans beat the Soviets he went out to play street hockey in front of his home near Philadelphia. He was Jim Craig. Little Corey Millen, a pepper pot center, was even littler then, and listening on radio back in Minnesota. He could imagine what it was like, all those American flags waving. Steve Leach, now a Washington Capital, watched with his family in the living room of their home in Lexington, Mass. -- "sitting on the couch, going wild." Yes, this team knows about 1980, and has set its own goals without any prodding from the media.

"I'd say the chemistry on this team is pretty good," said head coach Dave Peterson, 56, a Minnesotan who was an assistant coach on the 1984 Olympic team. "They're fairly tenacious most of the time. They're good competitors.

"The realistic goal for this team is to make the medal round. Making the medal round is like making the playoffs -- if you don't make the playoffs you can't win the Stanley Cup."

Peterson was coach for 27 years at a Minneapolis high school. He is experienced in amateur hockey, having coached the 1985, 1986 and 1987 national teams, and has coached the majority of these Olympians in international competition. He appears to run the Olympic squad firmly and with conviction, and has worked his players hard. A husky man, Peterson makes it plain that if he never saw another reporter he wouldn't feel a loss. He can be abrupt and obliging almost at once. He'll bark to writers, "Guys, we're down to about three minutes and I'm gone, so let's wrap it up." But, fair enough, he'll fill the three minutes with answers.

Peterson's has not been a "howdy, and let's get 'em" approach to hockey. The Americans have undergone a grueling, August-to-February exhibition schedule, against Canadians, Finns, Swedes, NHL teams and college clubs. The Americans have shown more promise than the '84 team, which finished seventh in Sarajevo. They have hard-hitters as well as fancy skaters; and they have several lines that can put the puck into the net.

"We have a very flexible team. We can change playing style," said defenseman Brian Leetch, the captain, meaning that he and his teammates can both skate and hit. Millen concurred. "We have speed and checking ability," he said. The '84 team wasn't known for its hitting.

"One thing we've tried not to do is put all our eggs in one basket -- we get a little bit of scoring from every line almost every game," said Peterson. The '84 team had one productive line, and a drop-off after that.

"We're a good skating club," said Peterson. "I'm not fearful of skating with anybody -- including the big team from Russia." What he's tried to do is get his team "to move the puck and play the game at the tempo at which we can skate."

Indeed, these players can move up ice. They love to sprint. "We are so much faster than when we got together, it's amazing," said Okerlund. "When I'm sitting on the bench sometimes, I can't believe the pace we play at."

The player who often starts the rushes is Leetch, an offensive defenseman in the mold of Bobby Orr. A No. 1 draft choice of the New York Rangers, Leetch has been touted as potentially the greatest U.S. player in history.

He's only 19, second youngest on the team. Yet Peterson has named him captain.

"He's a charismatic leader on the ice," said Peterson. "He's a very highly polished, highly skilled, articulate young man. All of the things you expect in a captain he has."

"Brian is just a great, great player," said Leach. "He has an incredible sense."

A redhead from Cheshire, Conn., Leetch was an all-America in his freshman season, 1986-87, at Boston College. With four goals and five assists, he tied for second in scoring on the 1987 U.S. national team. He piles up assists, and is a threat to score on the power play.

Leetch's father, Jack, was an all-America wing at Boston College in 1963 and was among the last cuts from the 1964 Olympic team -- along with 1980 U.S. coach Herb Brooks.

Noticeably soft-spoken, young Leetch has said that one of his favorite parts of the game "is making the good pass to the open man. I also like to have the puck in key situations. I feel I can create a situation that will help the team."

Other players to watch include: Millen and Scott Fusco. These are the two veterans of the '84 team. Both centers, they're good skaters and play with abandon. Each played in six Olympic games; Fusco got three assists. Fusco is a Harvard graduate, and drives opponents into the boards harder than a typical Ivy League economics major. He played in Switzerland last season while Millen was finishing his eligibility at the University of Minnesota. Kevin Miller. The younger brother of the Capitals' Kelly Miller, this Miller led the 1987 U.S. select team in scoring at the Pravda Cup Tournament in Leningrad. At Michigan State, Miller, a right wing, amassed 192 points in 134 games over three seasons. Chris Terreri and Leach. These are the only two players with NHL experience -- this is the first Olympics in which NHL players are eligible. Terreri is a 5-foot-9, 155-pound goaltender who's alternated with Richter during the long exhibition season. He's a Providence College graduate who got hot -- a successful Olympic goalie must get hot -- and carried the Friars to the NCAA finals in 1985. He has an 0-3-1 record with the New Jersey Devils.

Leach, a right wing from the University of New Hampshire, has 26 games experience with the Capitals, having played most of last season at Binghamton in the American Hockey League. "I think this whole Olympic experience is something I'm going to cherish for a while," said Leach. "I've continued to gain confidence in my game.

"We've had some great games with the Russians and the Canadian Olympic team and this experience, I think, will help me to where I want to go in the future. My goal after the Olympics is to play with Washington." He believes he especially has improved on defense. "These European teams put great pressure on you defensively. They flood the zone and come from all directions. So to play defense, your head has to be a swivel." Richter. He'll be in goal if Terreri isn't. From Flourtown, Pa., he was goaltender last September against his one-time idols, the Flyers, before 12,000 in the Spectrum as the U.S. team lost by only a goal -- the Olympians went 2-7 against NHL teams, including five one-goal defeats. In another particularly good outing, Richter, who played two years at the University of Wisconsin, beat the Canadian Olympic team, 2-1, in November.

More experienced than the 1984 U.S. team, this group includes 11 players from Midwestern colleges (six from the University of Minnesota) and nine from Boston-area schools.

It has four NHL first-round picks: Leetch; center Craig Janney, Boston; left wing Tom Chorske, Montreal, and defenseman Scott Young, Hartford. It has four second-round choices: Leach; Richter, Rangers; and defensemen Greg Brown, Buffalo, and Eric Weinrich, New Jersey.

More were drafted farther down the list: left wing Tony Granato and defenseman Peter Laviolette by the Rangers; defenseman Jeff Norton by the Islanders; defenseman Eric Weinrich by the Devils; center Allen Bourbeau by the Flyers.

All the players seem to have the proper attitude. Even as the Games neared, Okerlund observed, "We don't want to stay the way we are. We want to keep improving. As coach says, we're a good team but not a great team. And that's the way that we look at ourselves right now. And that keeps us hungry."

While the '84 squad lost its first two games and failed to make the medal round, this year's team will have a better opportunity. ABC-TV, which lost viewers when the United States bowed out early in '84, persuaded the International Hockey Federation to increase the medal round from four teams to six.

Thus, the Americans could lose to the Soviets and Czechoslovakia, but make the medal round by beating Austria, Norway and West Germany, which complete the U.S. bracket.

But how will the United States play on the Olympic-size rink, which is four feet shorter, but 13 feet wider than the NHL rinks they've been playing on?

"We've been on the big sheet at Lake Placid a lot," said Peterson. "We've played on the big sheet in Europe. We'll work on an Olympic-size rink in Duluth. I think our players know how to play the big sheet -- we've been on it enough to understand it and to know how to use it. So I don't think it'll be a problem for us."

Just as surely as Peterson has learned much from the '84 team's mistakes, he insists he isn't looking back to either 1980 or 1984. "Our history," he said, "is ahead of us."

After a 13-2 rout of the Soviet Select team at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Dec. 13, a man embraced Peterson in the runway off the ice and the two had a big laugh as the players came chortling toward their locker room, clomping on their skates. Echoes of a chant, "USA," could be heard from the arena above.

"I don't know what you feed them," the man told Peterson, "but . . . "

"I wish to hell they'd do that in February -- Feb. 13," said the coach.