"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 guys.' "
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 Gretzky."
"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.
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