Kevin Hatcher is tough, Detroit mean-streets tough, and yet so gentle. A National Hockey League defenseman who backs down from no one, he is neither bruised nor stitched, but fresh-cheeked and unmarked. He's in the big leagues, all right, but he's so young. He's 19, the baby Washington Capital. He is what he looks like -- the boy next door. He lives with the Mark Goldsteins, and they treat him like one of the family.

Out there in Potomac, he bangs the puck up against the garage door, eats at McDonald's with the neighborhood kids -- just another suburban teen heartthrob in jeans and Docksides without socks, dark hair parted down the middle. Who would think that Kevin Hatcher learned to use his fists at The Kronk? The Kronk!

The Kronk Recreation Center is merely a sweaty basement room in inner-city Detroit where no one backs down from anyone, where Thomas (Hit Man) Hearns had his nose broken and where Hearns' manager, Emanuel Steward, saw Hatcher land a punch and knew immediately it was the best right hand, at least from a 13-year-old beginner, he'd ever seen.

Who knows about The Kronk in Potomac? As it is, the reaction is often disbelief when Faith Goldstein happens to mention to a friend that an NHL hockey player is living at her home.

A what???

Faith Goldstein herself found it hard to believe when her husband Mark, a lawyer and avid Capitals fan, came home one day last summer with the proposition: How would you like to have a Capitals hockey player move in?

"At first, I said, 'No,' " she said. "I said, 'Are you crazy?' I thought of someone older. But Kevin is almost the same age as my older son. I said, 'What's one more kid?' "

So Mark Goldstein called back David Poile, the Capitals' general manager, who had suggested the arrangement. A family situation would ease the youngster's transition to the National Hockey League, Poile had said. Poile knew Goldstein as a member of the Capitals' Blue Line Club fan group. "I met Kevin and saw what a serious young man he is, and I liked him," said Goldstein, who then took him home and introduced him to Faith, to Brent, 18, Jon, 15, and Jenny, 10. A nicer welcome to the NHL no hockey player could ask for.

"I eat with the family and get my laundry done," said Hatcher.

Sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, he blended in as one of the family, talking about hockey and the Capitals' recent trip to Philadelphia -- "I was nervous" -- and Minnesota. Except for Brent, who's away at Colgate and whose room Hatcher has, they were all watching the New England-Miami football playoff game. Little Jenny sat with a thermometer in her mouth, looking wan. Hatcher kidded her: "Tomorrow's Monday (school). I know your act."

Finding Hatcher a home away from home is the kind of little-known decision that can help make a general manager's career and a team's success. As of the moment, the Capitals have themselves a well-adjusted rookie, and some of the credit has to go to Poile. It couldn't have worked out better: Hatcher even gets the run of the kitchen, which includes pasta on game afternoons and trays of homemade cookies.

"My husband's famous quote," said Faith Goldstein, "is, 'Rent a Jewish mother for a hockey player.' "

A No. 1 draft choice, Hatcher came close to making the Capitals at age 18, but the team, now one of the best in the NHL, could afford to keep him in junior hockey one more year. They sent him back to North Bay in the Ontario Hockey League, where he turned in an all-star season as the league's top-scoring defenseman with 26 goals and 37 assists. Last spring, the Capitals recalled Hatcher for the final two games and the playoffs, and in the final game of the regular season, he responded with a short-handed goal. He thought goals would be easier to come by than they have been this year -- he has five -- but that's part of the education of a rookie. Besides, he isn't paid primarily to score.

"A lot of teams would have kept him the first year," said Hatcher's father, Eric, "but Washington is a strong team. They did the right thing. He needed the second year of juniors. He really became much more complete. And now he has good teachers in (Rod) Langway and (Scott) Stevens. He's almost got the perfect situation."

The Hatchers -- Kevin has two brothers and two sisters -- live in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights. His older brother Mark -- who is 6 feet 7, 260 pounds -- has played in the Chicago Black Hawks organization and already was on the North Bay team when Kevin got there. The junior leagues provide a rugged learning experience -- long bus rides across the snow-packed Canadian landscape and battles on the ice. Mark Hatcher could tell his brother what to expect.

"There was a riot, and Mark was right in the middle of it," said Eric Hatcher. "People came out of the stands. It got real bad."

"Hey, Carol," he said, calling to his wife, "what was the year of the riot?"

It was one of those big rivalries -- North Bay at Kitchener. "The next year," said Eric Hatcher, "they booed Kevin just because he was Mark's brother."

But this was hockey, and the boys took to it. "Especially Kevin," said the elder Hatcher. "He always really liked it." In fact, he went off for his first season at North Bay before he had finished high school. "He's always had that confidence. That's what he always wanted to do," said his father. "He figured that's where he belongs."

Mark Hatcher isn't so sure anymore. He has taken this season off, to reassess.

Eric Hatcher, a carpenter, remembers starting his sons in hockey. They were 8 and 6. "It was a rainy day," he said, "and I stopped at a skating rink and I saw the intensity the kids played with. The level of intensity was a lot different than other sports. That impressed me."

But what about The Kronk? Was the idea there to toughen Kevin up for hockey?

Eric Hatcher laughed softly.

"I thought whatever he did, that confidence he would get would help him."

Kevin Hatcher liked boxing, too. "He got right into it," said his father. "He boxed the second time there. The third time in the ring, he drew with a future national AAU champion."

Yet fancy this: the Capitals' enforcer, big Dwight Schofield, carries two pairs of boxing gloves on road trips and challenged Hatcher to an on-ice slugfest after a practice. Spirits were up; the team had knocked off Edmonton. Time for a little test for the rookie. Teammates gathered.

Hatcher dropped him to the ice with a right.

But Hatcher wasn't interested in fighting Schofield, and as an agile skater for his size and an adept stick-handler who can clear a defensive zone, he's not interested in fighting anyone else.

"It's not really part of my game," he said.

He'd rather fight fish. He and his brother own a boat, a 16-footer, and in summers at home they take it to nearby Lake St. Clair. "Up at 6 o'clock and we're out there at 7," he was telling the Goldsteins the other day. "We get these pike. They're not good eating, but they're b-i-i-i-g. They fight so good.

"We took the boat up to North Bay, too. Caught 200 walleye last year at North Bay."

But North Bay is a long way from most places, including Washington. And this got David Poile thinking. "We wished we had put Bobby Carpenter and Scott Stevens with a family when they played here as 18-year-olds," Poile said. "It's a big adjustment for a young man, especially for someone who's always lived at home. It's a lot to get a home or an apartment, live by yourself, have those extra responsibilities and be a successful player at the NHL level."

At 19, Hatcher has straightforward but large goals: "Just to stay in the NHL for as long as I can -- maybe six through 10 years . . . to get a Stanley Cup." To be, in effect, the consummate defenseman, like Langway. "I would like to be a little more offensive than Rod."

But Hatcher has his career ahead of him, and part of his education came last week when he was benched for one game because he had been playing sluggishly. He took it well. "The coach said I needed a different view, from the stands," he said, and, according to Faith Goldstein, he "was very philosophical about it." Saturday night against Philadelphia, he came back strong, getting an assist on a timely Mike Gartner goal. And Tuesday night he scored against Minnesota.

The Goldsteins enjoy having Hatcher, as likable as he is. Said Mark Goldstein: "Hey, Kevin, I have a project for you. Since you didn't fix the pool-cue rack, I have this wire from the stereo . . . "

"I'll do it," Hatcher said cheerily.

But, first, he had to see a little more of the New England-Miami game. Just like a kid.

Oh, yes, and please pass the cookies.