Back in 1997, DVD players were all the rage. The brand-new technology was not cheap. At about $1,000 a pop, Kelly Hrudey thought it was a bit too expensive for his liking. But at Christmas that year, he was gifted what he coined a “game-changer” — along with two DVDs (one was of a Fleetwood Mac concert) — by the guy living in his guest house.
That guy was Patrick Marleau.
Now, more than 23 years later, the kid who at 18 would sit and eat sandwiches with Kelly and his wife, Donna, until 2, 3, or 4 in the morning talking about the game, about how things were growing up or just life, is set to become the NHL’s all-time leader in games played. When Marleau’s skates hit the ice in his first shift for the Sharks on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena in Vegas against the Golden Knights, it’ll be Game No. 1,768 of his NHL career — one better than Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.
Before the game, Marleau will pull over that Sharks sweater he has known for 1,595 of those games. (He also played eight games for the Penguins and 164 for the Maple Leafs.) Many, many moons prior, in June 1997, he was drafted second overall by the Sharks as a 17-year-old. The Seattle Thunderbirds centerman, who turned 18 that September, joined a rebuilding team that was entering just its seventh year of existence.
“After the draft, Dean [Lombardi, then the Sharks’ general manager] made a point of letting some of us older players know: ‘Hey, I’ve got this younger kid coming in. We love him. He’s coming from a real nice family but he’s a young kid and he needs your guys’ help,'” recalled Tony Granato, who was about to begin his 10th NHL season when Marleau was gearing up for his first.
“And then he came in, just a likable, likable kid and he was quiet and shy and respectful. He had the little smirk and smile to his face that he still has. As an older player, it was real fun to have a young guy like that come in. You could tell that he had great skill and was going to have great success in the game.”
The success did come. Three All-Star Games, 566 goals (23rd all time), 1,196 points, a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, his name filling up the Sharks record book and, now, besting Howe for most NHL games played. It was a record many did not expect to ever fall; after all, Howe played until he was 52 across 26 NHL seasons (with a few seasons in the WHA sprinkled in).
While those who knew Marleau, now 41, from the jump may be shocked the record is falling, they are not shocked by what became of the kid from Aneroid, Sask. Finding out about the youngster in advance of training camp wasn’t easy back then — mind you, it was 1997 and, like that DVD player, the internet was still newish — his teammates quickly saw what made Lombardi so excited.
“I remember we were in a drill . . . the whistle blows, the drill’s over, and I went to the bench to get a drink of water,” Hrudey said during a recent interview with Sporting News. “Tony [Granato] comes over to me and, remember, Tony and I had known each other for many years because we both played in LA together for a long time . . . he comes up to me and says something like, ‘Oh, wow, Kelly, I can’t believe this Marleau kid,’ and Tony was a good skater but he says something like, ‘I’m trying everything I can just to keep up with him. It looks hard for me but in Patrick, it looks effortless.'”
Granato, during a phone chat with Sporting News, didn’t remember that specific moment but did recall chasing around the forward who was 15 years his junior and thinking to himself, “Holy cow.”
Mike Ricci was traded to the Sharks in November 1997 and didn’t know much about the quiet Sasky kid. Lombardi was quick to point out Marleau, calling him a big, skilled guy he’d love with a great character. Ricci said that analysis was bang on.
“Darryl [Sutter] used to match lines up for the three-lap drill and every time I was matched up with his line I’d go up to Patty and say, ‘Hey, Patty (whistles), take it easy,’ and he would take it easy, but still I was chugging to keep up,” said Ricci, who is now a development coach with the Sharks. “He was an effortless skater from Day 1 and that might be a thing he was blessed with. But being a natural skater and being in tip-top physical condition and preparing himself and working hard off the ice and on the ice, these are the results you get.”
Results didn’t come immediately for Marleau. It wasn’t until his eighth game that he collected his first NHL goal, which was three games after his first NHL point. His first NHL game was Oct. 1, 1997, against an Oilers squad that included the likes of Kelly Buchberger, Hall of Famer Kevin Lowe, Doug Weight and goaltender Curtis Joseph. Although, if you ask Marleau, he remembers Bryan Marchment — who tried to hit him on his very first shift.
“The only thing I remember about that [first game] was he was so calm and relaxed, never got rattled,” reminisced Granato, noting Marleau wore 14 back then. Ron Sutter sported 12 and Marleau snagged the iconic digits after Sutter left for Calgary in February 2001. “Never got overly wound up, just kind of, you know, OK, first game tonight. It’s this big deal but I’m going to just go out and play, and I just think that he had that nice even keel to himself of not getting overly wound up.”
Durability. Mental toughness. Physical preparation. Good genes. A lot has gone into Marleau setting this record. He is on a run of 898 consecutive games played (fourth-longest in NHL history) that began April 9, 2009, and has missed just 31 games in his NHL career. Marleau credits the training staff, massage therapists, chiropractors and an IV bag every now and then when he got the flu.
“I think that to have a remarkable career like Patrick, I still think that he’s underrated,” said Hrudey, who also says that some of his favorite hockey memories are from the days Marleau lived with his family. “I don’t think that the general hockey fan truly appreciates how good he has been consistently throughout his career.”
That consistency started even before he laced up his skates for his first NHL game. Both Granato and Darryl Sutter were quick to point out that they were impressed by Marleau in exhibition games — Granato specifically recalled him potting his first professional goal in a game in San Diego against the Kings at just 17.
“Two things about him that stand out, his natural ability — it’s not like he had to work a lot at getting bigger or stronger or all that; he was a big, strong kid when he came in — [and] he was a great skater,” recalled Sutter, who ran the Sharks’ bench for the first 420 games of Marleau’s career (his first season in San Jose was also 1997-98).
“When you combine those two, usually guys stay healthy. There’s guys who get banged up and don’t take care of themselves and their careers don’t last as long. But Patrick’s had a long, successful career because of those natural things and then he’s taking care of themselves. Kudos to him. He’s a really good person and a really good player.”
Asked on a recent Zoom call with reporters what he wants his legacy to be, Marleau responded that he wanted it to be that he played hard, gave his all and was a good teammate. Well, when you speak to his ex-buddies and bench boss, they’ll say he definitely was.
“He respected the game. He respected the people in the game,” said Granato, adding the kid would hang out with the veterans on the road. “You know, for as young as he was, [he] was very mature in how to act as a teammate. For his teammates, too, it was easy to fall in love with a kid like that and want him to do well.”
There’s no timetable for when Marleau will officially hang them up. He alluded to chasing the Stanley Cup on that Zoom call, adding that he’s feeling good and will try to keep going for as long as he can.
So maybe Ricci had it right all along?
“I remember we used to joke around,” he said with a grin. “I used to tell him all the time, you could play till you’re 60. And obviously, I was exaggerating a bit but maybe I wasn’t exaggerating as much as I thought.”