The jacked-up 4 X 4 is cruising the streets of San Jose, and
country music blares from the stereo speakers. In the passenger
seat, after a grueling workout, Jeff Friesen, the star forward
for the San Jose Sharks, looks more like a kid just out of high
school than one of the hottest players in the NHL.
Actually, he's both. At 18, Friesen (pronounced FREEZ-in) is the
youngest player in the league and has been a surprisingly solid
contributor in his rookie season. At week's end he and Paul
Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were tied for second place
among rookie goal-scorers, with 14. In his last 15 games Friesen
has racked up 15 points. What's more, Friesen is a key reason that
the Sharks are in the hunt for a playoff spot. In pro hockey such
a performance at so young an age is rare indeed.
``It has all come so fast,'' says Friesen. ``But you've got to
enjoy it, eh?''
And that he is trying to do. The 11th pick in last year's draft,
Friesen spent the summer working out at a hockey school in
Brainerd, Minn., run by San Jose's director of player personnel,
Chuck Grillo, hoping to alter the perception that he was lazy,
inconsistent and unskilled defensively. It worked. Friesen drew
rave reviews for his work ethic and the progress he made.
During the players' strike, Friesen returned to his junior team,
the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, and later starred
for a victorious Team Canada in the Junior World Championships.
That additional experience, along with the impressive workouts in
Minnesota and at Sharks' training camp, helped him win a starting
``I've seen him develop in stages,'' says Shark coach Kevin
Constantine. ``So the success he's having now doesn't seem all
that surprising. He plays smart. He's not intimidated, but he
hasn't forced things, either. He's had a lot to adjust to, and I
do have to remember that he's still only 18.''
Most of the fellows Friesen grew up with in Meadow Lake,
Saskatchewan, work at the local sawmill. ``I know I'm lucky
to be in this situation,'' says Friesen, who signed a four-year,
$3.2 million deal last fall.
However, neither his rising fame nor the size of his contract has
had much effect on his life -- except that more girls call him
now. After he signed with the Sharks, Friesen paid some bills for
his parents and bought them and his grandparents satellite dishes
so that they could watch his games. He shares a tiny two-bedroom
apartment with 20-year-old teammate Mike Rathje and still hasn't
bought a car. Rathje, who was behind the wheel of the 4 X 4, often
plays chauffeur. ``I haven't had much time to think about buying
anything,'' says Friesen. ``Right now I'm having a great time,
living life to the fullest. I love the games, the practices,
Even the travel. Thus far, his favorite road trip has been to Los
Angeles. Not because of the trendy nightclubs -- heck, he probably
would have gotten carded -- but because the team had a day off,
and he and Rathje got to go to Disneyland.
-- Shelley Smith
COLOR PHOTO:ROCKY WIDNER The teenage shark is eating opposing goaltenders alive. [Jeff Friesen during game]