Mikhail Tatarinov had seen the man before. He knew him only as Alex and thought him to be a Russian emigre.

Alex had shown up a year earlier, in 1985, a continent away in Turku, Finland, knocking on the door of Tatarinov's hotel room. Tatarinov was in Turku as a member of a Soviet team at the World Junior Championships. Alex was in Turku because Tatarinov was there.

"He wanted me to defect," Tatarinov said recently, through translator John Chapin. "He showed me a contract, offered it for me to sign and go."

The contract was to play hockey with the Washington Capitals. They had picked Tatarinov late in the 1984 entry draft, not knowing if they ever would meet him, much less put him in one of their uniforms. Six years later, they have done both.

Tatarinov declined Alex's offer in Turku, but the Capitals were not deterred. They knew leaving one's country -- for good, in all likelihood, if defection was the method of departure -- was not an easy step for anyone.

So a year or so later, the World Junior Championships were held in Hamilton, Ontario. When it was over, the Soviet team spent a night at the Manoir Le Moyne Hotel in Montreal before departing for Moscow. Their hotel was near the fabled Forum on St. Catherine Street and half a dozen players, Tatarinov included, went out to look for something to eat. They stopped at a nearby grocery store. While they were in the store, wandering the aisles, Alex appeared. As the other players watched, he walked up to Tatarinov.

"He said, 'Go outside. There are some representatives of the Caps sitting in a car,' " Tatarinov said. "But I didn't go anywhere."


"I didn't really know who this guy was," Tatarinov said. "What was the point of doing this, of defecting? My parents would never have understood."

For years, the point in defecting was that it was the only way for many to leave the Soviet Union, especially if he or she was a talented performer. The particular skill didn't matter. Like any nation, the Soviet Union did not want to give away assets for nothing.

But the world, particularly the Soviet Union, is changing. That nation is moving -- slowly and hestitantly -- toward a market economy. And in a market economy, sometimes enterprises have to sell off assets. That is partially why Tatarinov is a Capital, but still very much a Soviet and able to go home whenever he choses. Never before have the Soviets willingly allowed a top player in his prime (24) to leave for the NHL.Life in a Mining Town

"Misha," as Mikhail is known, is the youngest of Vladimir and Valentina Tatarinov's three children. The family lives in the southern Siberian city of Angarsk. Near the larger city of Irkutsk, Angarsk is about 50 kilometers from Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake. It isn't much farther to the Mongolian border.

"The winters are very long in Angarsk," Tatarinov said. "There is always outdoor rinks and natural ice, so people play hockey and ski. People love hockey there."

Angarsk is in a mining region and though coal is the the common commodity, a gold mine is where Vladimir Tatarinov works. Valentina works at a hospital. Misha's two sisters, Ira and Ludmilla, work in a factory.

Tatarinov left home when he was 15. As others from his town had, he went to Kiev, enrolled at a sports institute and played hockey for Sokol Kiev for two years.

Tatarinov did move to his nation's capital, but it was to play for Moscow Dynamo and not Central Red Army, which wanted him. More than just a hockey team, Dynamo is a huge organization, founded in 1923. On the ice, it is Central Red Army's closest rival. Last season, Dynamo won the national championship for the first time in 36 years, according to Tatarinov. He relished the coaching he received in Moscow, particularly from Vladimir Yurzinov, who later would prove instrumental in Tatarinov's move to the West.

"He believed in me," Tatarinov said.On to Moscow

Just 18 when he arrived for the first of four years with Dynamo, Tatarinov finished growing up in Moscow. He says he already had disposed of an inclination toward drink. One night in a Moscow disco he met Natasha, with whom he will celebrate a third wedding anniversary this December.

The couple, and their 2 1/2-year-old son Vladimir, had a one-bedroom apartment in Moscow until just before they left. They had a noisy, pollution-spewing, but difficult-to-get Lada sedan.

Misha had been to North America numerous times, but Natasha had not left the Soviet Union until they boarded the Pan Am flight to New York on Oct. 20. That meant more paperwork and more culture shock.

"When it came time to leave, she was a little bit reluctant," Tatarinov said. "Her mom is there and we had been set up. She didn't think people would receive us this well. People are very kind here."

Some in the volunteer corps are wives of Capitals players and officials. Elizabeth Poile "is always helping out." Linda Murray, Luba Bondra -- a recent arrival herself from Czechoslovakia -- and Mary-Ann Hatcher have been tennis partners.

But that wasn't all. The Capitals are paying for help in acclimating the Tatarinovs. Katherine Young is a consultant based in Arlington, who has worked with the Capitals for about three years. She helped interpret during negotiations, but as she said, "My role was centered on what happened when they got here."

She has stayed at the apartment at times and helped with a thousand details while also acting as chauffeur and translator.

Tatarinov had prepared his wife for the difference between the barren shelves in Moscow stores and the brimming ones in America.

"She was a little surprised at the variety," Tatarinov said, but the adjustment is not hard. "You can get the same vegetables and make the same soup."

Mikhail seems to recognize some English and knows a few words. They are trying to arrange a tutor around his schedule. Natasha knew almost no English, but is working hard in lessons. Tatarinov's contract is for two years plus an option. Obviously, the hope is that he will still be helping the Capitals by the time son Vladimir is ready to go to school.

"We haven't thought about that yet," Tatarinov said, "but out of the three of us, he will probably learn English the quickest."

When Alex knocked on Tatarinov's door in 1985, Jack Button was in a room nearby. In 1986, when Alex suggested Tatarinov leave the Montreal grocery, it was Jack Button in the car.

"Jack was the lead guy, he made all the trips and established all the contacts," Capitals General Manager David Poile said of his director of player personnel and recruitment. "He is the man responsible for this."

But Button had help. Katherine Young had been there to help in a variety of ways for years. Pat Young, Poile's secretary, deftly handled the paper shuffling with Dynamo and several U.S. government agencies, notably the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Baltimore.

There were stages to the process of getting Tatarinov here, sort of the BP and AP: before peristroika and after peristroika.

Until about two years ago, no NHL teams were allowed to talk to Soviet players, although that didn't mean they didn't try and, occasionally, succeed. There were hotel lobbies to work and practices to attend, all designed to let the players know that somebody out there -- with money and a chance to play in the NHL -- was looking at them. Whenever Tatarinov played in the West, Button tried to be there, but he also showed up in the East. Button and his wife, Bridgett, spent the past few Christmases watching the Izvestia Tournament in Moscow.

Button used a bit of "subterfuge" and "someone inside" to find out what hotel, and then what room Tatarinov would be occupying in Finland. Though Button insists it wasn't the stuff of spy novels, it was about as close as hockey gets.

"I know a scout from another team who thought he had a chance to talk to a Soviet player because that player moved his feet during the playing of the Russian National Anthem as a sign," Capitals President Dick Patrick said. "That's how hard it was. But in the past 18 months, everything has opened up."Closing the Deal

In September 1989, the Capitals played in the Soviet Union as part of the NHL's Friendship Tour. If the trip was a failure as a training device, it certainly was helpful in establishing contacts.

"Abe {Pollin, team owner} and I were invited between periods to have vodka and caviar," Patrick said. "They didn't want to talk about Tatarinov. They were pointing to 32-year-old players who couldn't get out of their own way. But they were looking for a transaction."

Button and Poile also held more businesslike meetings on that trip. Yurzinov had requested that the Capitals not contact Tatarinov, but they managed to pick up tidbits on his thoughts by "keeping our ear to the ground," as Katherine Young put it.

Last December, Button met with Yurzinov in Hamilton. Button and Tatarinov bumped into each other, said hello and had a brief chat. "Very casual," Button said.

Alexander Steblan, the president of the Dynamo hockey club, was the man who eventually negotiated both contracts from the Soviet side. On Jan. 6, Dynamo played the New Jersey Devils as part of the NHL Super Series. Button, Poile and Young met with Steblan at a hotel near the Meadowlands Arena. That meeting apparently went a long way to allowing Tatarinov to leave. Three nights later, in Boston, Yurzinov told Tatarinov he could be playing in the NHL by the following season.

"I was very surprised," Tatarinov said. "At that point, as I understood it, if we won the championship of the Soviet Union, they would let me go. So after we won the championship, about 10 players were allowed to go play in Europe. So when this season started, I went to the coach and said, 'When am I going?' He said, 'Just help us out a bit for the first 10 games.' "

By this time, it was simply a business negotiation and not a political one. Button and Steblan met in Moscow in February. "The money was onerous at that time, but we kept the lines of communication open," Button said.

Tatarinov played for the Soviet national team in the World Championships in April in Bern, Switzerland. He eventually was named the top defenseman of the tournament, but before that, he contacted Button and they talked. It was then that Tatarinov made it clear to Dynamo officials that he wanted to leave without defecting.

Button stayed near, first in Finland and then in Seattle at the Goodwill Games. In Seattle, Sergei Federov, of Central Red Army, left the team, signed a contract with Detroit and asked for a work visa, though he did not defect. That made the KGB and Viktor Tikhonov, the national coach, very upset.

"I went up to Yuri Korolyov, the president of the Soviet Hockey Federation, and told him I wasn't defecting," Tatarinov said. The federation then wanted all players to sign contracts. But after consulting with Button, Tatarinov, Dmitri Hristich (another Capitals draft choice playing for Sokol Kiev) and a third player refused to sign the contracts.

By September, the Soviets were more ready to deal. Steblan and Button (with Young alongside) met on the 22nd. Steblan wanted to meet again on a Monday, but Button said he had to leave Sunday to go to Vienna to arrange the deal with the Czechs for Peter Bondra. If the Soviets had anything new, they should telex his office and he might return. They did and he did, arriving in Moscow after he and Young got new visas in Finland.

Button met with Valery Sysoev, a deputy of the Supreme Soviet and the President of the Central Council of Dynamo. On the afternoon of Oct. 2, Button and Steblan signed the transfer deal between the Capitals and Dynamo. The Capitals reportedly paid Dynamo between $200,000 and $400,000 for the rights to Tatarinov, who played that night for Dynamo, then signed his Capitals contract.

The Capitals and Tatarinov have refused to discuss his salary.

"This whole story," Patrick said, "is one of persistence."