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DESPITE THE FACT THAT he is but a mere rookie, Paul Ranheim of the Salt Lake Golden Eagles is the leading goal scorer in the International Hockey League this season. Ranheim has 43 goals in 49 games. Nobody else is even close to such a pace. Every time a goalie turns around, there's the rookie. Again.

Ranheim's not-so-secret weapon ishis speed. He has taken the league in a sprint. He has had previous goal-scoring streaks of five and six, and is on a current streak of eight games. In one game he scored five goals. There are defensemen who, to this day, five months into the season, aren't sure what he looks like. They'd do something about him, if they could catch him.

The Los Angeles Kings have The Great One. The Salt Lake Golden Eagles have The Fast One.

This isn't to say Ranheim would have won the 100-meter dash at the Olympics; but he would have if they'd given everybody ice skates and a hockey stick and put a net at the other end.

Ranheim could be the world's fastest hockey player. At least that's the way Paul Baxter would bet. Baxter is the Eagles' coach who played 13 years of professional hockey, including eight in the NFL - as a defenseman, no less - and he says of Ranheim: "His skating ability is second to nobody in pro hockey."

Baxter's eyes light up on the subject of Ranheim's skating skill. Understandably so. For one thing, he doesn't have to defend him. For another thing, he's got him on his team.

"He's not only quick and fast," says Baxter, "but he's got great thrust. He's like a Herschel Walker on skates."

Growing up in Edina, Minnesota, not far from St. Paul, Ranheim always had a lot of ice around, and he adapted to his environment quickly. He might have become a speed skater or a figure skater, given his natural aptitude, but hockey was the biggest game in town. He was off and skating before he could talk. When the ice melted in the summer, he would move indoors for summer power-skating camps.

He was an All-American at the University of Wisconsin before the Calgary Flames picked him 38th overall in last summer's draft and sent him on the double to Salt Lake City. A lot of IHL teams have been rolling their eyes ever since.

"So many teams come in here and shake their head that he's at this level," says Baxter, stifling a smile. "They say he'd be their first team left-winger in the NHL, if he was with their organization."

It is Baxter's opinion that a year of every-night, full-scale pro hockey action has turned Ranheim into more of a goal-scoring phenom than he ever was. "I think he's getting to the point now where his hands are catching up with his skates," says the coach. "I think when he was younger he went so fast it was hard to get it synchronized. Now, he's developing a good shot to go with his skating."

Ranheim gives a lot of credit to his linemates, Rich Chernomaz and Randy Bucyk.

When he's open, they feed him. And he's open a lot. It's no surprise that Chernomaz and Bucyk lead the team in assists and are No. 1 and No. 4 in total points (goals plus assists), respectively. The Chernomaz-Ranheim-Bucyk line is as tough to stop as it is to spell, or find.

"Paul's one of the fastest I've ever played with," says Bucyk. "And he'll listen to anything you have to say. He's anxious to learn the game."

Bucyk and Chernomaz are both veterans, but they haven't picked on Ranheim, or ignored him, just because he's a rookie. Neither has anyone else on the team. Even if they tried, Baxter wouldn't allow it. There are no hazing rituals on the Golden Eagles. Rookies don't have to shave their heads, or carry the luggage of the veterans, or go out for ice cream. "That kind of stuff is dehumanizing," says Baxter. "Everybody's the same here."

"Really, I couldn't be treated better," says Ranheim. "There are a few things rookies have to do. Like load the heavy stuff on the bus on road trips, and we had to pay for the rookie party. But that's OK."

He can live with that, as long as they keep slipping him the puck when he's on the break. Ranheim is living in the fast lane with the Golden Eagles, and vice versa. They're winning games, and he's scoring goals. With 27 games yet to play, Scott MacLeod's franchise record of 59 goals in a season, set in 1985, is easily within reach, and even the IHL record of 75 in a season, set in 1983 by Dan Lecours of Milwaukee, is a possibility. True, that would require a slightly better than a goal-a-game pace the rest of the season. But by now, everyone in the IHL - and goalies in particular - is aware of this: The Eagles' Ranheim will make a run at it.