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 job.
"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 Fake, 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, everything."
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.