CALGARY, FEB. 14 -- Every high school in America seems to have a Dave Peterson. He's that graying and beloved old bear of a career coach -- part gruff practical wisdom and part barrel-chested mischief -- who gets an inscribed watch, then retires to a life of "fishing, golf and naps."

"Especially naps. I'm an all-American napper," says 57-year-old Peterson, who has found himself cast here as the controversial and cantankerous coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

The thousands of students who have known and appreciated such embodiments of the popular Old Coach might wonder what would happen if fortune chose him for an experiment. What if, after those dedicated decades in the small time, he were suddenly placed on a world stage? What if he coached an Olympic squad with a decent chance for a medal, even a remote chance for a gold over the Soviets?

For the next two weeks, Peterson may get more prime time exposure -- for good or ill -- than most presidential candidates. Twenty-seven years at Southwest High School in Minneapolis doesn't prepare a man for this.

If his bumptious young underdog team, which beat Austria, 10-6, on Saturday, upsets Czechoslovakia on Monday night or the Soviets on Wednesday, then talk of another Miracle on Ice will start like crazed wildfire. Prime time won't be big enough to hold 'em.

If both games are lost, however, then Peterson's name may be forbidden at ABC-TV. That network bid far too much ($309 million) to televise these Games. So, to cut its losses, ABC is praying for a contending U.S. hockey team.

Some men seize their moment of a lifetime. Some are seized by it. With Peterson, it's impossible to tell which scenario is in progress. In a small group, he's the sort of brusque but appealing authority figure around which so many schools revolve. But at news conferences, he's generally seemed belligerent.

The genial Peterson says: "I think we'll play well. I think people will enjoy watching us. But I don't know how we'll do. We'll have fun. I guarantee that."His players, not surprisingly, swear by him. "The kids here like to play for him," says Steve Leach, on leave to the Olympic team from the Washington Capitals. "He's a real good guy. {But} he's feeling the pressure. He likes the team to be real low key. He's not crazy about the hoopla."

More accurate would be to say that Peterson despises the hoopla and wants to protect his team from it. After all, he was the goalie coach on the '84 U.S. Olympic team that finished seventh.

This time around, Peterson has been defiantly downplaying everything.

"We're pleased to be here, I guess," was his first public remark. Asked why he named Mike Richter as his opening game goalie, Peterson snapped: "I looked at the moon and it seemed like the thing to do." Next, asked politely if he'd really played a hunch or whether other tactical factors were involved, he snapped: "I'm not here to psychoanalyze my goalkeepers for you people." Could his team's strong offense overcome its weak defense? "You said that. I didn't. I don't feel that way."

He knows there's a second-guesser waiting here behind every rock. Why did he cut Brad Jones, fourth-leading goal scorer on the team's 60-game tour, who is already playing well for Winnipeg of the NHL? Why were more than half those tour games played on small college rinks when the Olympic ice is 100-feet long, forcing a far different game? Shouldn't Peterson have let his team march in the Opening Ceremonies since the team's first game (just was five hours later was against a push-over Austrian squad which the U.S. quickly crushed, building a 10-3 lead?

For Dave Peterson's sake, or just for the sake of common sense, it might be constructive if U.S. hockey fans thought in terms of bronze this time around. And didn't get too upset with a little less.