When a 41-year-old son of the Canadian Prairie takes his first shift for the San Jose Sharks on Monday night in Las Vegas, he will release a legend’s grasp on one of the National Hockey League’s most celebrated records.
Patrick Marleau will play his 1,768th game, more than anybody else in league history. That includes Gordie Howe, the Hall of Famer whom Marleau will surpass on Monday night. The Sharks’ center took 23 years to pass Howe, who played 26 seasons in the NHL before retiring at 51.
During those 26 seasons, Howe made the All-Star team 21 times, won four Stanley Cups, six Hart Memorial Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player and six Art Ross Trophies as its leading scorer.
After retiring, Howe motivated ensuing generations from his native province –including Marleau.
“Growing up in Saskatchewan, one of the first things you do is look to see what players from Saskatchewan are in the NHL,” Marleau said. “Obviously, Gordie comes to the top of that list. It gives you hope. Maybe that could be me, one day, playing in the NHL, since these other guys before me did it coming from small farming communities in Saskatchewan.”
Once Marleau breaks Howe’s record, the center will have a chance to make more history Wednesday night against the Vegas Golden Knights by playing in his 900th consecutive game.
“Paddy hasn’t missed a game since I’ve come into this league,” said Sharks captain Logan Couture, whose rookie season was Marleau’s 13th. “He’s played through a lot of injuries, a lot of illnesses, a lot of things that other guys wouldn’t play through. For us other players whose streaks are nowhere near that, it’s remarkable.”
But the players’ respect goes beyond Marleau’s resiliency. He holds the Sharks’ career records in eight categories, including overall goals (522), power-play goals (163), shorthanded goals (17) and game-winning goals (101). In the process, Marleau regularly received votes for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, which honors sportsmanship, and was twice a finalist.
The center also helped Canada win Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014.
“On the ice, there’s a certain standard that you know you want to be with when playing with Paddy,” said the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Joe Thornton, Marleau’s close friend and former teammate. “He expects a lot out of himself each and every night, and that really trickles down to all of his teammates.
“As a person, he‘s just a very gentle, humble and kind guy. As a friend, if you need anything, he’ll be there for you without hesitation.”
Members of the Sharks’ two biggest rivals, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, recently expressed their admiration. Once games ended, players and coaches went to Marleau and shook his hand to offer congratulations for his upcoming achievement.
“You’ve played against them for a lot of hard-fought battles,” he said. “For them to take the time to come over and shake my hand and congratulate me, I don’t take that lightly. It’s humbling. There’s a lot of history behind those handshakes that I cherish.”
Marleau’s own history begins in Aneroid, Saskatechwan, a hamlet of about 50 people. He lived with his two siblings on a 1,600-acre farm, where his family grew grain and raised cattle.
Working on the farm forged Marleau’s durability.
“He’s farm tough,” said the Kings’ Todd McLellan, who coached Marleau in San Jose for seven seasons. “He’s a big, thick, strong Saskatchewan farm boy. Then he was committed to training and to his fitness. We think fitness and health is just the body but it’s mental, as well. He covered all the bases.”
Marleau illustrated that commitment when discussing the ice baths he takes every game between the second and third periods.
“It helps with recovery,” he said. “You trap lactic acid, and your body produces its own HGH to help with recovery and help to build muscle. One of the things in the science behind it was cooling your core temperature. Cooling your body actually helps with muscle fibers contracting, getting that explosiveness on the ice, just keeping you nice and cool so you don’t overheat.”
Sometimes, Marleau takes emergency measures to keep playing.
“There have been games where if I get the flu, I’ve gotten IVs in the morning of games, just trying to keep those fluids up and be able to play that night,” he said. “The training staffs have done everything humanly possible to keep me on the ice.
“There always are bumps and bruises along the way. The sooner you can get those under control and try to get back up to 100% through the season, it can only help you throughout your career.”
As the NHL became faster, Marleau forced himself to adjust.
“My main asset throughout my career is being able to skate well and use that to my advantage,” he said. “I try to keep up that speed with plyometrics. The last few years, I tried to lean down a little more. I used to play at 220lbs. Now, I’m around 215lbs, depending on the day.”
Marleau displayed perhaps the best example of his conditioning in March 2009. While attending the birth of his second child, he missed a home game and an ensuing overnight team flight to Nashville. But Marleau flew to Tennessee on a private jet, rejoined his teammates and played 23 minutes, 30 seconds in a 3-2 loss to the Predators the following day.
“It was something he wanted to do,” McLellan said. “He was able to make it. That speaks volumes to him not only as a family man but as a teammate.”
Marleau’s dedication to team and family reflects his rural upbringing.
“On the farm, you have to be a team,” he said. “There’s always big jobs to do. Everybody comes together to help each other out, and I think that’s carried over. You don’t get anywhere in this game without great teammates and great support, and I’ve definitely had both of those.”
Marleau joined the NHL in 1997, when the Sharks made him the second player chosen in that June’s draft. At the time, coach Darryl Sutter presided over a veteran squad.
“We felt clearly that he was a No 1 centerman going forward,” said Sutter, who later guided the Kings to two Stanley Cups and now coaches the Calgary Flames. “We tried to insulate him for those first two or three years with top-skilled centermen who could still play that No 1 center role so he didn’t have to just jump into it. We kind of eased him into and pushed him through those first two or three years. Eventually, he just took off with it.”
In his first 20 seasons with the Sharks, Marleau played in three All-Star games, served as captain for five-and-a-half seasons and helped the team join the NHL’s elite. Yet a Stanley Cup has eluded him and the Sharks.
That frustration motivated Marleau to sign a three-year contract with Toronto as a free agent in July 2017 – and continues to propel him upon returning to the place where he began his career.
“Obviously, every kid’s dream is to hoist that Stanley Cup, so I’ve been chasing it all this time and that goal hasn’t changed for me,” Marleau said. “I still feel good. I’d like to keep playing as long as I can, as long as my family is willing to keep supporting me.”
Sutter believes Marleau can achieve a more lasting legacy.
“It’s not for me to say who is a Hall of Famer and who isn’t,” he said. “I’m a little biased because there are guys in there that I’ve played against, and I know Paddy was a lot better player than them. He’s the epitome of a perfect player.”
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