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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.
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 Senators.
"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 defense-man 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  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."