Six years is a long time to wait for a player, but the Washington Capitals' persistence paid off this weekend when Soviet defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov arrived to begin his career in the National Hockey League.

Having waited such a long time to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL, Tatarinov was so anxious to get started that the Capitals made the announcement Saturday night after their 4-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils. Originally, they planned a news conference for today.

Yesterday, Tatarinov took part in his first practice, though just six other Capitals showed up for the optional workout at Mount Vernon Recreation Center.

Tatarinov's arrival -- with the blessing of his government, his Soviet team and the Soviet Hockey Federation -- marks a fundamental change in the practices of all of those organizations. In the past, only veteran players (28 or older) were allowed to leave for the NHL.

"It is a real breakthrough," said Jack Button, the Capitals' director of personnel and recruitment, whose numerous trips to the Soviet Union produced the deal. "We are the first organization -- with the cooperation of the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation and his home team, Moscow Dynamo -- to be allowed to have a young Soviet player travel to North America and play in the NHL."

Last season there were about 10 Soviets playing in the NHL, but all were veterans, except Buffalo's Alexandr Mogilny who defected to the United States in 1989. Tatarinov is just 24 and should be in the prime of his career.

This past summer, 20-year-old Sergei Federov left his Soviet team at the Goodwill Games in Seattle and signed with Detroit. However, Federov insisted he wasn't defecting, he only wanted to work in the United States and will return home after his hockey career.

Tatarinov went through channels. He and the Capitals were persistent and consistent in their desire for him to play in Washington. Early this month, a three-year contract was signed, and the visas for Tatarinov, his wife, Natalya, and 2-year-old son, Vladimir, came through.

"I never thought about defecting," Tatarinov said yesterday through translator John Chapin. "I wanted to go about it the right way and I wanted everybody's blessing."

Much has changed in the Soviet Union since the Capitals selected Tatarinov in the 11th round of the 1984 draft. The "Evil Empire," as President Ronald Reagan called it, is now a U.S. ally in the conflict with Iraq. Within the Soviet Union, a switch to a market economy is being debated by the government, while the already long breadlines grow everyday.

"I'm not a politician," Tatarinov said. "But life isn't that sweet in the Soviet Union. Fortunately, being a hockey player, I have some say and more power than other people."

Some Soviet teams and the federation need sources of funding that they might not now be getting from the government. So they give up a player in exchange for a transfer fee. There was some indication that the Capitals paid between $200,000 and $400,000 for Tatarinov's release. That is in addition to the salary he will earn over the length of his three-year contract. All of this was part of the negotiations that had gone on for years, but intensified over the summer.

"I'm sure economics has to be entered into the equation somewhere along the line," Capitals General Manager David Poile said. "But there was persistence and consistency with Moscow Dynamo. Mikhail was persistent. He wanted to put his time in for them and then to play in the NHL."

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Tatarinov is a smooth skater and has a nasty slap shot. He played for the Soviets in the world championships. Before stopping to get ready to come to Washington, he had six goals and six assists in 11 games for Moscow Dynamo. Though Tatarinov wasn't sure how much his 10 days off the ice will affect him, Capitals Coach Terry Murray is planning on using him in Tuesday's game in Philadelphia.

"I will play him a few shifts," said Murray, whose team has won two straight. "He won't get the ice time that he might get a month from now."

Tatarinov played in the Super Series last season against NHL teams and has been to North America 20 times. But this is Natalya's first trip, though their arrival was eased by the Capitals having an apartment ready for them. It is in the same Crofton complex in which Peter Bondra and his family are living. Bondra (who likewise has a Soviet passport) took six years of Russian in his Czechoslovakian school.

Katherine Young, a Soviet consultant hired by the Capitals to help in making this deal, will live with the Tatarinovs for a time. She recommended Chapin (both are former United States Information Agency employees), whom the Capitals put on a three-month retainer. But if Chapin isn't nearby, Bondra can translate. Michal Pivonka then will translate for Bondra.

"If that's how it is, fine," Murray said with a laugh. "Hockey is an international language."