Leafs’ Patrick Marleau set for emotional return to San Jose

NHL insider Chris Johnston on HC at Noon to discuss what kind of emotions Patrick Marleau will be going through for his return to San Jose, where he played 19 seasons prior to becoming a Maple Leaf.

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Even after all those years as a Shark, Patrick Marleau describes himself as more of a duck.

"You know, calm on the surface," he said by way of explanation. "But the wheels are turning underneath."

There promises to be a great churn of emotion as the resolute 38-year-old steps inside the Shark Tank for the first time as a visitor on Monday night. This is no ordinary return. We’re talking about a player who has suited up in 75 per cent of the games in franchise history despite missing San Jose’s first six seasons and signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs in July.

Only five men have ever played more games for one NHL team than the 1,493 Marleau had with the Sharks – Gordie Howe (1,687), Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564), Alex Delvecchio (1,549), Ray Bourque (1,518) and Steve Yzerman (1,514) – and only one of those men, Bourque, left that team and returned for a moment like this one.

You could argue the Sharks are doing Marleau a favour by choosing to run a video tribute prior to Monday’s game.

That should confine most of the emotional moments to before when the anthems are played. The Leafs forward openly acknowledges that he’s not entirely ready to be back here so soon after making the difficult decision to leave.

Just 110 days have passed since Marleau signed a three-year contract with Toronto – the Sharks were unwilling to go beyond two – and set about moving his wife, Christina, and four boys across the continent. They’re still settling into a new home that has required more repairs than originally expected. The kids are in new schools and on new hockey teams and have had the occasional moment of melancholy for the life they left behind.

We’ll probably never know if Patrick has felt the same way.

It’s telling, though, that the entire family has come west to be here for this. Their true home is still in the Bay Area, so it hardly feels like the first stop on a four-game road trip.

"I’ll probably just spend the evening with them," Marleau said of his Sunday plans. "So that’ll be a little different. Spending the evening with them, but going to a different locker room the next day."

He is still establishing new routines after just 11 games as a member of the Maple Leafs. That was entirely the point of his July 2 decision to jump into the great unknown – that, and the chance to chase the Stanley Cup while being paid handsomely for the opportunity.

In a nomadic profession, Marleau has been a homebody.

He left the family farm in tiny Aneroid, Sask., at age 14 to play hockey in Swift Current. Then it was on to Seattle for two seasons in the Western Hockey League and straight to San Jose after being selected second overall in the 1997 draft.

Marleau was only a couple weeks past his 18th birthday when he made his NHL debut and lived with Kelly Hrudey, my "Hockey Night in Canada" colleague, during his rookie year.

He wound up becoming the franchise leader in every statistical category while being named captain and stripped of the captaincy along the way. In San Jose, Marleau experienced the excitement of building one of the NHL’s top teams for more than a decade but also embodied the disappointment of not ever being able to reach the summit.

This is where he grew up and where he spent off-seasons. This is where a self-described family man laid his roots.

The significance of his return certainly isn’t lost on new teammates, with Leafs centre Auston Matthews saying: "Obviously, with Patty going back home there, it’s definitely a game we want to win for him."

That’s what they did for the Scottsdale native when he played his first game in Arizona last season. Leafs coach Mike Babcock even addressed the players before that Dec. 23 visit and told them he believed "when someone’s on our team and it’s important to us that he’s on our team" that they’ll find an extra level when it’s a game that really matters to that guy.

Marleau certainly fits the bill among a group that arrives here with losses in three of its last four games. He commanded instant respect from the moment he first walked in the Leafs dressing room.

"I don’t think Patty is going to say a whole bunch, but what he’s going to do is even when everyone else isn’t working, he’s working," said Babcock. "When he comes in each and every day, it’s not what you say … it’s what you do.

"The pros, they don’t have to say much."

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In recent years, we’ve seen Jarome Iginla return to Calgary as a visitor and Daniel Alfredsson come back to Ottawa, but this may end up more closely resembling Bourque’s first visit back to Boston. That came on March 24, 2001 – more than a year after he’d been dealt to Colorado – and the defenceman was welcomed with a standing ovation in warmups.

Bourque also received a pre-game video tribute and saluted the crowd at centre ice. Then he had two assists in the opening four minutes, heard his name chanted as the clocked ticked down and skated one final lap after the final buzzer, keeping the puck as a memento.

"I had goosebumps at the beginning and at the end of the game," Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy said afterwards.

Marleau took out a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News to thank fans before the season, but now has a chance to do it in person at SAP Center.

They’ll return the favour. This will be one of the NHL’s loudest crowds feting the former face of the franchise.

"It’s going to be different, but I’m going to try and use that energy that I’m feeling in a positive way," said Marleau.

Whether he sheds tears or not, we can be sure of one thing: There’ll be a lot more going on in his heart and mind than this Shark for life will ever show.