Patrick Marleau; The Next Generation -- The Fabulous Thunderbird

PATRICK MARLEAU, a beefy, 16-year-old from the Saskatchewan prairie, seems as natural a talent on the ice as Ken Griffey Jr. on the baseball diamond.

The puck nestles on the backhand side of Patrick Marleau's stick as the Thunderbirds' rookie winger closes to the right of the goal.

As the goaltender and a lone defenseman react to what seems a sure shot, Marleau holds his move. Suddenly he flicks, not a shot on net, but the sweetest of passes across the front of the crease onto the stick of a linemate, who Marleau seems to feel more than see.

His teammate quickly puts the puck in the open side and Seattle goes on to win 4-2.

In the stands for that December victory over Swift Current was Jake Goertzen, the former Thunderbird director of personnel now scouting for the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. He looked on in appreciation.

"That's a play that you don't see many 20-year-old juniors make - give up an in-close shot for a blind pass," he said. "Heck, not many NHL players would make it. And Marleau does it at age 16. Wow."

"Wow," may be the best description of Marleau's ability and his future. What this handsome, hulking youngster does on the ice may be comparable to what Ken Griffey Jr. showed on the baseball diamond when he also was a high-school junior.

"We don't usually pay much attention to 16-year-olds," said Blair Reid, scout for the NHL Philadelphia Flyers. "Our teams expect us to focus on kids in their draft year or those who've been drafted already. But Marleau forces you to pay attention."

Reid explained that Marleau, whose Sept. 15, 1979, birthday will make him the youngest player in the 1997 NHL draft, has all the skills big-league teams look for - skating, shooting, size and steadiness.

"And he's more refined at an early age than most young players, better already than a lot of juniors ever achieve," the scout said. "He's got that one thing you search for in kids and is so tough to find. . . . Call it hockey sense, a feel for the game, the flow, the anticipation of where the puck is going to go before anyone else on the ice."

This is not to say the native of Aneroid, Saskatchewan, is perfect.

"Patty has all the ability in the world," said Seattle Coach Don Nachbaur, who also intoned caution. "How far he goes with those gifts will be determined by one thing - how much dedication he has to succeed, how hard he works to develop them."

Nachbaur knows about work. He took limited skills honed from two years with Billings of the WHL to eight years in the NHL.

Marleau's work ethic comes from his family and upbringing on the Saskatchewan prairie.

"Good people," Reid said. "You talk to the father and you know the son will have his feet on the ground."

Rand McNally puts Aneroid 60 miles south of Swift Current. With Patrick here, Aneroid's population is 99 souls, among them his parents Denis and Jeanette, sister Denise, 21, and brother Richard, 18. Jeanette is a teacher in a one-room school for a community of Hutterites, a German religious group.

Patrick had heard the stories about NHL immortal Bobby Hull developing his strength on those same prairies, lifting bales of wheat on his family's farm.

"It's hard work," said Marleau, affable but shy. "We'd get up early in summer when it gets hot later in the day."

Winters apparently were as fruitful. When the barnyard pond froze, Denis Marleau, a defenseman in his playing days in local leagues, would take his sons out to skate. If ever there were an all-Canadian story, this is it. It's told by generations of young ones with bright eyes turned to the NHL - a story akin to American kids who grow up dreaming of major-league baseball or the NBA.

The vast majority eventually find their limitations. Some, like the Nachbaurs of the world, fight their way through. Some others, such as Marleau, have the right stuff.

He honed the abilities by playing "up." At age 10, he performed in a league for 12- and 13-year-olds. By 15, he was facing off against players 17 and 18.

Darryl Plandowski, Thunderbird head scout, was assistant coach when Marleau was drafted as a 14-year-old bantam. "When we first saw Patrick, he was 5-foot-9," he said. "You could see the beginnings of the skills then, but you couldn't project how much he'd grow or how much he would develop on the ice."

The Thunderbirds made Marleau the sixth pick in the first round, putting him on their list of protected players. The next time Plandowski saw him play - last year - Marleau's skills had greatly improved.

"We realized we had something special," he said. "He was the best player in Saskatchewan."

But major junior is a long way from the barnyard pond. Marleau played for the Western Canada team in the World Under-17 Tournament last September, then reported to Seattle's training camp.

"I remember speaking with his dad at that time," Plandowski said. "He didn't think he was ready."

At 6 feet 1, 180 eager pounds, he was ready. In his first exhibition game, Patrick scored two goals against Spokane.

"He was ready . . . physically," Nachbaur said. "Then we had to find out if he was ready mentally."

The only way was to bring the kid, only 16 on Sept. 15, to Seattle. In the team's KeyArena debut, he scored two goals in a win against Brandon.

In the nearly five months of the WHL season, Marleau's position on the team has evolved. He started out a talented prospect, lived up to that and steadily grew on the ice. And since Jan. 25, the day the Thunderbirds traded away five older players for a brighter future, Marleau has taken on a leadership role with a younger team that is generally playing hard while taking its losses.

Marleau has scored 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 55 games and leads the team with four game-winning goals. Nearly a point a game is outstanding production in any serious league. When you're the third youngest player in the Western Hockey League, it is exceptional.

Marleau is not a lock on converting chances into goals, but that is coming surely as the onset of spring.

"You try to learn each game, and one thing you're reminded of each game is that players here are bigger, stronger, faster than I've ever played against before," he said. "They're more experienced, better at the game. And that goes for goalies, too."

Marleau is learning to use his size and strength. As fluid as he is on the ice, he can plant himself in the slot, the way Phil Esposito used to in the NHL. Actually, Marleau can place himself anywhere and not be shaken. He has the look of an Eric Lindros to him.

Tri-City defenseman Dan Smith found that out. He ran Marleau into a corner in a game earlier this year, drove him hard into the boards. Marleau skated away; Smith was helped off the ice.

Marleau also must become more consistent. "Pat shows you flashes of what could be," Nachbaur said. "He has to learn to play every shift with the same intensity."

Part of that, a big part, is playing hard without the puck, which includes defensive duties, backchecking strong.

Another area of concern is how well Marleau is adjusting to being part of a team, instead of being The Big Man On Ice. "Patty has to realize, at this stage, he can't do it all, like he used to," Nachbaur said.

There was a slump, for instance, when he came back from the Christmas break, about six games by his estimate.

"I was upset at myself," he said. "It wasn't a matter of missing home. . . . I like Seattle a lot and I was anxious to get back to playing. But for some reason I wasn't getting open. I wasn't playing well. It was one of those lessons you're always learning at this level. Coach (Nachbaur) helped me get out of it."

Marleau smiles at the talk of his ability, potential, future. "Nice," he said.

"When we drafted Pat we thought he'd give the Thunderbirds a solid four or five years," Plandowski recalled. "Now? Who knows how long you'll keep him."