There is some ground to be covered before it matches the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees or even the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. But the Bruins and Hartford Whalers have built up a fair amount of dislike for each other in the last nine months.

"It started last season, but got fueled up pretty good in the last three weeks," Hartford Coach Rick Ley said of the growing friction between the two Adams Division teams closest to each other geographically. "It's certainly good as long as the sticks stay down."

Unfortunately, they rarely do in these sorts of situations. On Nov. 24, Boston's Cam Neely disliked what Hartford defenseman Randy Ladouceur was doing, so he whacked him over the head with his stick. That drew a five-game suspension.

Then the Bruins whipped the Whalers on consecutive nights (Dec. 12-13). The second game was in Boston, where the benches are separated only by a few feet. Hartford's Ed Kastelic, having received a game misconduct for elbowing Craig Janney in the head, was going off the ice when he and Boston's Lyndon Byers started pushing. All the while, punches were being exchanged between a Hartford assistant and the Boston team doctor, and Hartford's Pat Verbeek was jamming his stick into the Boston bench.

Byers, who had been involved with Janney, then stepped off the bench with the intention of making his presence even more known. Boston Coach Mike Milbury grabbed Byers to pull him back, but Byers already had a foot on the ice. It's not that Milbury is a man of consummate peace. He knew there was an automatic penalty for such a step -- a 10-game suspension for the player and five for the coach -- which is exactly what the league levied.

"They always thought of us as a doormat," said Hartford General Manager Ed Johnston, whose team took Boston to seven games before losing in the first round of the playoffs last year. "I don't think they showed us any respect."

Said Milbury: "I think that's basically true. Let's face it, Hartford has not been a tremendous team when the playoffs roll around. They flirted with .500 and showed brief flashes of brilliance. Until you establish yourself as a contender for the Stanley Cup, you lack a certain credibility."

Hartford is not drawing very well and Milbury thinks the Whalers are hyping the rivalry to pull in fans. But he said the Bruins have begun to look at the Whalers more seriously. "We do get ready to play them more now," he said. Hatcher Likely Choice

The balloting for starters in the all-star game closed Dec. 15. The starters will be announced Jan. 2 and 3. The latest tally had Boston's Ray Bourque and Pittsburgh's Paul Coffey leading among Wales Conference defensemen. The Capitals' Kevin Hatcher was 14th in the voting, but every team gets one representative and he is a good bet to be named to the squad.

Milbury will coach the Wales Conference team and Edmonton's John Muckler will coach the Campbell stars in the game to be held Jan. 20 at Chicago Stadium. Muckler faces something of a prickly decision in choosing a second goaltender to back up the likely starter, Calgary's Mike Vernon.

An argument can be made that the Oilers' Bill Ranford deserves to be in the game, since he has good numbers and has been just the only thing keeping the Oilers from total disaster. But Chicago's Ed Belfour -- who is not on the ballot principally because he is a rookie -- would win the Vezina Trophy (top goalie) and maybe the Calder Trophy (top rookie) if the season ended today. If Muckler picks anybody but Belfour, Blackhawks fans will be livid. Crawling Before Walking

Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux, inactive since developing a lower back infection in September, began a twice-daily off-ice workout program yesterday. Lemieux is expected to split his workouts between the Civic Arena, where the Penguins play, and a therapist's office near his suburban Pittsburgh home. "He starts out with a simple exercise program, a lot of stretching, riding the exercise bike," Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick said. "No weights at this time. It's going to be a very, very simple, slow process to get started."