Merry Men The Sharks are no longer going in circles thanks to a core of forwards under age 25 who form the NHL's most talented young quintet

Dec. 13, 1999
Dec. 13, 1999

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Dec. 13, 1999

Merry Men The Sharks are no longer going in circles thanks to a core of forwards under age 25 who form the NHL's most talented young quintet

The boy and his grandfather would sit in the boat for hours on
Flotten Lake in the northern Saskatchewan woods, drifting,
waiting for the walleyes and magnificent northern pike to tug at
their lines. They would talk. The grandfather--called Opa by the
boy--would muse about his World War II experiences as a German
paratrooper, about being shot down over Holland in May 1940 and
about being shipped to a prison camp in Canada until the end of
the war. The boy would hear these stories and shade in the
background, embellish the tales as children often do. The stuff
about his grandfather's receiving orders directly from Adolf
Hitler--"He was as close to Hitler as I am to you," the boy, all
grown up, said across a restaurant table last week--isn't true,
as his grandfather readily confirms.

This is an article from the Dec. 13, 1999 issue

The boy is about the same age today as his grandfather was in
1940, and sometimes when he checks into one of those fancy,
24-hour-room-service hotels, his mind flashes to his
grandfather's stories about eating rations in prison camp. He
thinks about his Opa often. The grandfather's thoughts rarely
stray from the boy. From his home in suburban Edmonton, Helmut
Voelcker, 80, calls Jeff Friesen, 23, before almost every San
Jose Sharks game to wish him luck.

"My father influenced me, but a lot of my characteristics came
from my grandfather," Friesen says. "He pays such attention to
detail. When he does something, he tries to do it right. Like
golf. He took up the game at 78, and he wants to beat everyone.
He missed a big part of his life as a prisoner. I learned from
my grandfather that you have to take advantage of your time,
that you have to do things right. That's why I'm so tough on
myself. We have a pretty good situation now in San Jose, but I'm
the first to tell you we're a long way from where we want to be.
But the foundation is here. Finally."

In a park next to San Jose Arena there's a merry-go-round, a
convenient metaphor. If sometimes a cigar is just a smoke, maybe
a merry-go-round is no more than a carousel, even if it whirls
50 yards from the home of the Sharks, an organization that not
long ago went through four coaches in less than two years and
has never finished with a winning record in its eight seasons.
In fact, San Jose has never had a skater among the top 10 in any
major category other than penalty minutes. (Link Gaetz had the
dubious distinction of finishing fifth in the league in 1991-92,
with 326.) Now the Sharks have three forwards who were among the
NHL scoring leaders through Sunday: right wing Owen Nolan, who
ranked second with 37 points; center Vincent Damphousse, who was
10th with 28; and left wing Friesen, 11th with 27. San Jose has
finally located a path that could lead to the Stanley Cup, and
if it reaches the promised land--something that probably won't
happen this season--it will have been driven by the most
imposing group of young forwards in the NHL.

In addition to veterans Nolan, 27, and Damphousse, 31, the
Sharks have five quality forwards younger than 25: Friesen;
center Patrick Marleau, 20; and wingers Marco Sturm, 21, Alex
Korolyuk, 23, and Niklas Sundstrom, 23. This quintet had
combined for 86 points through Sunday and helped the Sharks to a
15-13-3 record. Compared with other teams with young talent up
front, San Jose is deeper than the Boston Bruins, the Colorado
Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils, and younger than the Ottawa

"What you're seeing is these kids being developed into all-around
players, guys who can play in any situation," says Doug Wilson,
the Sharks' director of pro development. "I know there's
tremendous respect for them, not only in our room but also around
the league."

They're a disparate lot. Sundstrom, a 6-foot, 195-pound Swede,
is a right wing so technically brilliant he almost never gets
noticed. By contrast Korolyuk, a 5'9", 195-pound Muscovite who
also plays right wing, jukes and weaves past checkers with his
white-tongued skates, peewee-sized stick and devilish grin. He
has mastered enough English to know there is no I in team but
there is an i in dipsy doodle. "He used to drive us crazy on the
national team," says Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray, who
guided Team Canada in the 1997 World Championships when Korolyuk
played for Russia. "We'd slash him, and he'd give it right back.
He'd stick the puck between your legs, beat you, laugh and then
look for another defenseman to beat. We used to hate to see
those white skates." The 6'2", 210-pound Marleau, who grew up
about 300 miles from Friesen in Saskatchewan, has been in the
NHL since he was 18. He brings a winger's speed and heavy shot
to his role as the second-line center behind Damphousse. Sturm,
a 6-foot, 195-pound German, lacks Marleau's innate gifts but is
well schooled and has already played in an NHL All-Star Game. He
exudes such professionalism that San Jose coach Darryl Sutter
calls him a potential captain.

But the Sharks' cornerstone is the 6-foot, 205-pound Friesen.
He's not "naturally gritty," in the words of San Jose general
manager Dean Lombardi, but he has added toughness to his outside
speed and made a commitment to abandon the perimeter and sniff
out the raw, nasty areas in front of the net where almost all
elite scorers go. Through Sunday, Friesen, San Jose's career
scoring leader--he's in his sixth season with the Sharks--had 12
goals this year, which, among his stats, trailed only his number
of mutilated sticks.

The self-flagellating Friesen routinely terrorizes the dressing
room, smashing sticks over his missed scoring opportunities, his
blown defensive coverages, his failures to make the right pass
at the right time or any of his other flaws, real or imagined.
"Probably the most caring young player I've seen," Lombardi
says. "He fell to 11th his draft year [1994] because the knock
was that he was soft, that he didn't care, that all he was
concerned about was his points. He's been the complete
antithesis. He'll get two goals and afterward be the first to
say that he should have done this on that play or he didn't see
that guy or he should have buried that one. He's never
satisfied, almost to a fault."

As a rookie Friesen was stonewalled, not by goalies--he tallied
15 times in 48 games in lockout-shortened 1994-95--but by
teammates. He was a flashpoint for a dressing room split between
the glut of youngsters San Jose was rushing into the league and
a coterie of small-minded veterans who realized they were being
phased out. The hostility was open, the tension palpable.
Friesen was stunned. He understood the hierarchy of a team, the
respect due older players. He willingly unpacked the veterans'
equipment bags and hustled to start their cars in the airport
parking lot after a long road trip. "I remember [second-year
defenseman] Mike Rathje [getting so frustrated over the abuse he
was taking from older players that he started] pinning them
against the wall in practice," Friesen says. "I never did that,
although there were times I felt like doing it. You take it and
take it, and there comes a point where you've had it."

"Some veterans were envious of all these kids making big money
right away," says Sharks defenseman Jeff Norton, a 13-year
veteran who was one of Friesen's supporters. "Mostly, they were
envious of Friesen's talent. He was a great kid, a great player,
but some guys at the time were cruel. They called him teacher's
pet and Kevin's son. [Kevin Constantine, now with the Pittsburgh
Penguins, was then San Jose's coach.] Anything extra he did in
practice wasn't perceived as a kid trying to make himself better
but as kissing up. I spent a lot of time that year telling him,
'Don't worry, you're going to be around a lot longer than those

Back then the Sharks' merry-go-round was spinning out of
control. There was also a schism in the front office. Lombardi,
the director of hockey operations at the time, held power with
Chuck Grillo, the director of player personnel, who was the de
facto co-general manager. Grillo was responsible for the
disastrous 1995 draft in which five of San Jose's first seven
selections were Finnish players picked curiously high. (None of
those seven have played an NHL game.) Grillo was fired in March
1996, and Lombardi took control of the '96 June draft. He traded
a pair of second-rounders to get a late-first-round choice. He
used that to select Sturm.

"[Sharks scout] Tim Burke and I were at the European juniors
that year to see Andrei Zyuzin [who would be San Jose's top
selection and the No. 2 overall pick], but Sturm's number kept
coming up," Lombardi says. "So we tried to find things wrong
with him. With higher-rated guys, you tend only to see the good
things. With players like Marco, you try to see the bad. We were
saying he probably isn't good in traffic and bang, two minutes
later he goes into the corner with three Czechs who run the crap
out of him, and he still comes away with the puck. We met Marco
after the game. He was amazed that anyone wanted to talk to him,
and he didn't know all the standard lines. Then we saw him play
in the medal round and he wasn't very good, so I talked to him
again. I'm standing outside the dressing room, hand extended,
and he blows right by me. He's ticked off because his team's
been eliminated. I turn to Burke and say, That's the kid we want
because he's not kissing my butt."

Sturm, who has soft hands, was slow to grasp the protocol of the
NHL, trying to cream every opponent no matter his size or
stature. Before meeting the New York Rangers for the first time,
in 1997-98, Sturm's rookie season, veteran Shark Tony Granato
cornered Sturm and said, "Whatever you do, don't hit Wayne

"Why not?" Sturm asked.

"Because if you do," Granato explained, "[now retired Rangers
defenseman] Jeff Beukeboom will beat the hell out of you."

Sturm soon figured out NHL life, but Korolyuk had a longer
learning curve. Drafted 130 spots after Friesen, Korolyuk wanted
to party with the puck and preferred playing the maverick to
playing defense. Remedial work at San Jose's minor league
affiliate in Kentucky reined in his excesses without killing his
creativity. Today, Sutter would prefer that Korolyuk dangle less
and shoot more, just as Sutter wants Sturm to develop a quicker
release, Sundstrom to fire the puck and Marleau to ratchet up
his intensity to Friesen's level. They all have room to grow.

"These guys give us a sense of direction, but we're still trying
to establish an identity," Lombardi says. "I tell our young
players there's a difference between playing in this league and
winning in this league, a difference between being a 30-goal
scorer on a nonplayoff team and a 30-goal scorer on a team that
wins one, two, three rounds."

Friesen, a sure 40-goal man one day, could help the Sharks learn
the difference. With his grandfather in mind, he will continue
working on every detail of his game until he plays consistently
at a level commensurate with his gifts. The fire burns in
Friesen. Luckily, he has all those splintered sticks for kindling.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GERRY GROPP Riding high San Jose is the envy of the league because of this fivesome (from left): Marleau, Friesen, Korolyuk, Sturm and Sundstrom.COLOR PHOTO: W.P. MCELLIGOTT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Record start Despite being only 23, Friesen is a six-year veteran who already holds the Sharks' mark for career goals.COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER

High Five
Here's special contributor Pierre McGuire's take on the
rising Sharks forwards, including Sundstrom (left).


LW Jeff Friesen, 23 Outstanding puckhandling skills and speed;
underrated on defense; gritty

C Patrick Marleau, 20 Super acceleration with puck; may be
better suited to wing; defense needs work

LW Marco Sturm, 21 Excels in one-on-one battles; never takes a
night off; offense needs polish

RW Alex Korolyuk, 23 Deceptive speed, hard to contain; loves to
shoot; can create own shot

RW Niklas Sundstrom, 23 Top penalty killer; can shut down anyone;
sometimes forgets about his offense

Friesen often terrorizes the dressing room, smashing sticks over
his missed opportunities.