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Soviet star Kovalev like money in the bank for Dynamo Moscow


NOVOGORSK, U.S.S.R. -- Novogorsk is a suburb of Moscow, a 30-minute drive from the major hotels in city center, where filthy children linger outside and cling to your arm until you give them a coin. It is a 30-minute drive from the delicate blinis and splendid pelmenyi you may enjoy at Kropotkinskaya 36 -- as long as you pay for your meal with any currency that is not Soviet. Novogorsk is 30 minutes from the majesty of the Kremlin, where tanks and citizens squared off last month and where Lenin's tomb remains, for now, the closest modern equivalent of an Egyptian pyramid.

Novogorsk also is about nine hours from Kennedy Airport, a flight across the top of the world, a trip you do not make, generally, unless you have a serious reason. In June, New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith gave himself such a reason; he drafted right wing Alexei Kovalev from the Dynamo Moscow team that has won the past two championships of the Soviet National League -- the team that trains, and lives, at Novogorsk.

The Rangers never had drafted a Soviet in the first round. No NHL team ever had taken that risk. No. 1 picks have to be as close to a sure thing as possible, and there is nothing sure about the actual date a Soviet player, especially so promising a player as Kovalev, 18, might be allowed to leave his homeland permanently.

"Any good player wants to play in the NHL, because of the high level of hockey," Kovalev said through an interpreter. "But I didn't plan to play in America. I didn't think it was possible. I thought I would play maybe somewhere in Europe."

Not any more. Because now, along with being a player of such exceptional potential, Kovalev is a whopping asset to Dynamo; he is a skating certificate of deposit. When Dynamo needs money, it will cash in on Kovalev's value and allow him to leave once the Rangers meet the price. The "sale" is not expected to happen soon, but Smith stands poised to act in a hurry, perhaps as early as next season, if the Soviets decide they need cash.

"We are not very rich, our club, but our dreaming, our thinking is to become much richer," said Vladimir Yurzinov, Dynamo's coach and an assistant to Victor Tikhonov with the Soviet National team. "We don't want to lose our place in world hockey -- the national team, and Dynamo, as well."

So when you stand near the boards at Novogorsk and stare at the ice, you don't see numbers on the players' backs, you see dollar signs. And you can count on Kovalev bringing an astronomical price.

"One man high in Soviet Union hockey told me he [Kovalev] will be the Soviet Union's Wayne Gretzky," said Christer Rockstrom, the Rangers' European scout, who also compared Kovalev with Detroit center Sergei Fedorov -- last season's top rookie scorer with 31 goals and 48 assists. "Fedorov is more of a two-way player, but when he's having a good night, he's a game-breaker. This kid [Kovalev] is the same."

Kovalev carries the trademarks of an elite skater whose skills have been polished to a brilliant luster. Like the Chicago Blackhawks' Jeremy Roenick, Kovalev always is moving, toward the puck or toward open ice. Like Gretzky, Kovalev always is shifting his weight, using the edges of his skates for turns and changes of direction. For entire shifts, the puck is around Kovalev or he is around the puck.

"He likes very much to move on the ice," Dynamo assistant coach Peter Vorobiev says. "That's why, sometimes, he forgets to make a pass."

The Soviet concept of hockey is based on passing and teamwork, so such "forgetfulness" is not viewed as acceptable.

"His passing is not very good yet. That's why he is not yet a good player," said Yurzinov, whose standards are extremely high. "He needs to learn how to pass with the whole team. He has some qualities to be a good player, but not yet. He needs time."

Kovalev is still growing at 6-1, still filling out at 189 pounds, still learning. But there is one thing he already knows, knew long ago.

"From my childhood," Kovalev said, "I wanted to be the best player -- a superman -- and not let anyone get in front of me."

As Kovalev spoke, during what he said was the first print interview of his life, he seemed more interested in the music video that was playing soundlessly on the color television across the room. He was seated on a sofa in the coaches' lounge, on the second floor of Dynamo headquarters. On the light blue walls were various pennants of European, Soviet and NHL teams. There were team photographs of assorted vintages. There were cushioned chairs set into every free space around the room's perimeter; one, by the window, with an especially high back, seemed to be Yurzinov's favorite.

And there was the television at which Kovalev stared much of the time.

Two days before he spoke to the Daily News, that television could have been an inch from Kovalev's nose and he still might not have noticed. Two days earlier, that room had been filled with excitement as Smith arrived and presented Kovalev with a number of Ranger gifts, including the ceremonial jersey every No. 1 pick receives.

Smith had shaken hands with Yurzinov and with Alexander Steblin, Dynamo's president. He had sat on that sofa, to Kovalev's immediate right, during the whole half-hour meeting, while the young player, seeming nervous, overwhelmed, looked at his hands or at the floor.

If you didn't know better, you might think the youngster aloof or withdrawn. Not so. Says Kovalev: "I'm not shy."

Not so, says Andrei Romanin, Dynamo's sports psychologist and teacher of the optional English classes the team offers at least twice a week.

"Kovalev is a very modest and serious guy," Romanin said. "He is from a small city and very young, and from a good family. Sometimes, when your readers compare our guys to the NHL players, they forget we have another kind of thinking.

"In the NHL, if you say something about yourself, if you are proud of yourself, it's good," Romanin added. "In our country, it's somewhat different. We appreciate it very much if you don't talk too much about yourself. In our country, if somebody says, 'I am a great player,' then people are laughing at him, or someone will say, 'Shame on you,' even if he is a really terrific player."

Banking on Kovalev being a terrific player, Smith set in motion a remarkable sequence of events at Buffalo last June. He drafted a Soviet player in the first round, an NHL first. He traveled 5,000 miles, across the top of the world, and opened personal communications with Steblin -- not a first, but a rarity. And he managed to deliver a top young Soviet player to New York for a weeklong visit, in the player's draft year, through negotiation.

Pardon the grammar: That is unheard of.

"With Kovalev coming to camp, you see someone who has our scouting staff's stamp on him. He's not someone left from a prior regime," Smith said. "It's really exciting, because the 'today,' the 'tomorrow' and probably the whole 'next week' of the Rangers' franchise is going to be before your eyes when Kovalev gets here -- especially if we find out Kovalev is actually not 'next week,' but tomorrow.

"It's wonderful to have Kovalev acclimated this way, to what his future in life is," Smith added. "It's one thing to give him a jersey or some pucks or a yearbook or a jacket. It's another thing if he gets to come over and meet the people who will be his future teammates, see his future environment. Then he gets to go back and know what's ahead of him. It's a dramatic thing."

The drama is not lost on the blond-haired youngster.

"About the NHL in general, I know a lot because we see lots of video," Kovalev said. "About the Rangers, I don't know much. I never paid much attention to them specifically."

"For a teen-ager from Moscow," says Goran Stubb, of the NHL's central scouting bureau, "the step to Manhattan is a pretty big one."

Kovalev is not from Moscow, any more than someone from Buffalo is from New York City. Moscow has 9 million inhabitants, which makes it just like New York in one way. And to prevent theft when they park their cars -- which sounds familiar, too -- Moscow motorists take their windshield wipers with them.

Most of the cars in Moscow are tiny, boxy Ladas or Ghigulis, built in the city of Toliatti. It is a Soviet city with an Italian name because the Toliatti company built its automobile factory there and the city -- on the Volga River, a full day's train ride from Moscow -- grew around it. Alexei Kovalev's father, Viacheslav, works in Toliatti's sports arena. Paulina Kovalev works in a food store. In their lifetimes, they probably will not make as much money as their son will his first NHL season in New York.

Kovalev has visited the New York area before. When Dynamo toured the NHL last year, they played the New Jersey Devils at the Meadowlands after having enjoyed a day-long walking tour. Other times, planes carrying his team to other cities have made stops at area airports.

Monday, when he was scheduled to step off a plane at JFK, Kovalev was without a chaperone. He has not signed a Rangers contract, and no attempt will be made to sign him during this, his first extended stay.

When he first met Steblin and Yurzinov in the coaches' lounge that Saturday in August, a week before the attempted coup, Smith promised there would be no dishonesty, no kidnapping, ** no betrayal. He said it earnestly, and the remarks were received as such. The unmistakable spirit of friendship and cooperation between Smith and the Soviet executives was staggering to anyone who remembered how the Cold War existed in hockey just as it did in politics; you couldn't even say there was mistrust, because there was no trust.

"I didn't like it when the NHL just stole our players. I am against stolen players and dealing behind one's back," Yurzinov said, sitting in that favorite chair of his. "It is good we can talk face to face, understand the interests of all of us. In that way, everyone will win. Hockey will win. I like very much that now, we play our cards with open hands."

One hand extends northward from Seventh Avenue, up across the top of the world. It is grasped firmly, warmly, by one 5,000 miles away -- a hand extended from Novogorsk, a hand bearing a special gift named Kovalev.

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