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.