With gas left in the tank, Marleau has no regrets about Leafs tenure

Watch as the Toronto Maple Leafs paid tribute to Patrick Marleau’s time with the team by giving him a standing ovation.

“I decide when I’m done.” —Lightning McQueen, Cars 3

TORONTO – They scripted things a little too perfectly, didn’t they?

Sometime during that first Toronto Maple Leafs road trip in 2017, Patrick Marleau invited his new young teammates, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, to dinner and initiated a friendship with a couple of budding superstars roughly half his age.

A screening of Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 ensued, the three amigos piling into a hotel room to watch a film whose target audience was more in line with Marleau’s biological sons.

The gist of the film’s plot is that Lightning McQueen, once one of the speediest racecars on the circuit, suddenly finds himself struggling to keep pace with the next generation, all souped-up with their advanced technology and newfangled training methods.

Lightning is determined, however, to prove that he still has what it takes to compete with the day’s elite, even if it means adopting fresh methods and starting from the back of the pack.

“The racing is the reward. Not the stuff.” —Lightning McQueen

And so it was, earlier this month, that a 40-year-old Marleau, after his two imperfect yet impactful 82-game laps with the Maple Leafs, found himself traded (for the steep cost of a first-round pick), bought out (by the Carolina Hurricanes) and desperate to cling on — to his ironman streak, to his Stanley Cup dream, to the only career he’s known since he left the farm.

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Maybe it was destiny, if you believe in such a thing, that Marleau’s true home team blinked when the green light flashed. The Sharks sputtered to a 0-4 start this season, and it was only then that GM Doug Wilson circled back and offered a franchise legend the league minimum ($700,000) to rev up the pistons once again and arrive here, back in Toronto, playing his 1,500th game as a Shark.

Although the night’s result — a happy 4-1 checkered flag for Marleau’s former team over his original one — didn’t fall in his favour, everything else has been turning up Marleau lately.

“That’s pretty crazy how everything seemed to work out that way, so it’s pretty exciting and pretty fitting,” Marleau said Friday, before walking into Scotiabank Arena’s visitors’ room for the first time all over again.

“He’s going to retire one day and be a Hall of Famer, and he’ll be wearing San Jose’s jersey,” Mike Babcock said. “So, I think things have a way of working out for a reason.”

Marleau left such an impression during his brief Toronto tenure that the Leafs coach — who reminds that the club needed to attach a third season to his UFA deal in order to lure the Marleaus out of California — isn’t sure 2018’s UFA prize, John Tavares, would’ve signed here were it not for Marleau assisting the sale.

Rielly describes Marleau as “extremely unique” and chuckles at the thought of the young room replacing their den dad. There’s only one Patty.

“When you’re a kid and you see a man of just about 40 and he still loves the monotony of the game — in other words, the travel, the training and the work — all the stuff that gets you tired and they never get tired,” Babcock said, “it gives you energy and actually makes you take a look at yourself.”

The Maple Leafs training staff quietly presented Marleau with a package of goodies prior to puck drop. Maybe there was something in their for his kids, who still pretend to be Matthews and Marner during their mini sticks battles.

Toronto’s game ops compiled a warm tribute video that unspooled to a standing ovation during the night’s first TV timeout.

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Marleau stood, applauded his appreciation and waved a gloved hand.

“Those always get ya,” said Marleau, recently feted in San Jose as well.

“Being here for those two years and getting the friendships and the bonds you make over a quick period of time, those mean a lot.”

“I can’t go out on the track and do the same old thing. It won’t work.” —Lightning McQueen

In his final, sluggish season with the Maple Leafs, weighed down by the impending financial trouble his frontloaded contract would cause and a reluctant demotion to the bottom six, Marleau spoke of how he was planning to try a model of skates made this decade and maybe ditch the ancient two-piece hockey stick he’d fuse together as part of his extensive pre-game ritual.

He just couldn’t make the leap.

This fall, after his emotional delay in limbo, he has finally picked up one of those one-piece composites the kids are all talking about. He slipped his feet into a pair of updated CCMs, without the Pump.

The results, so far, have been spectacular.

“I’m not surprised that he’s still chugging along,” Matthews says. “So, who knows how many years he’s got left in him? He looks fresh. He can still fly out there.

“You don’t score 500 goals in this league for no reason.”

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Marleau flew to Toronto with six points in six games, and it’s young Timo Meier, not the guy with grey in his stubble, whom coach Pete DeBoer calls “a work in progress” on Logan Couture’s top line.

“That’s the beauty — no difference,” says DeBoer, thinking back to coaching the 2016-17 Marleau.

“Same big body, same speed, still plays an honest same way. That was probably the one thing you’re worried about: Has there been a drop-off on those things that made him special? I haven’t seen it yet.

“Every conversation I had with Patty Marleau wasn’t about breaking records. It was about coming back and helping us win a Stanley Cup.”

Babcock had caused a stir large enough to cause Marleau to log on to his wife Christina’s Twitter account Friday morning when the coach said, “His goal is to break Gordie’s (games played) record. I wish him luck with that. I wish him luck every night except when he plays us.”

Babcock’s comment caught the ironman “a little off-guard,” although a healthy, signed Marleau (1,664 games and ticking) could pass Howe’s 1,767 in 2020-21.

“For games played, there’s too many things up in the air, but I think for me it’s always been about winning a Cup and always will be,” Marleau says.

It’s also about being a good teammate, even if teal isn’t quite blue.

“You can’t turn back the clock, kid. But you can wind it up again.” —Smokey, Lightning McQueen’s coach.

The Christmas dinners, the carpool karaoke, the epic mini-stick wars, that Cars 3 screening—Marleau’s connection to Matthews and Marner never cracked when he left.

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Fittingly, the young superstars, aspiring leaders in their own right, now share the “A” Marleau vacated (and, truth be told, a chunk of his cap dollars).

And it’s telling of their closeness that each spend some of their summer vacation hanging with Marleau out west. Marner leaned on Marleau as a sounding board during a stressful contract dispute.

“When you’re going through negotiations and things aren’t going well, the emotions run high and they can go up and down, but sometimes it’s just good to have somebody to talk to and listen to you, and that was about it,” Marleau says.

“It all worked out for the best. I ended up back in San Jose, and Mitch got his contract.”

And Matthews confided in Marleau his legal charge in Scottsdale before it became public.

“There’s always two sides to every story. I had seen him in the summer and talked about it. It’s hard how things get played out in the media sometimes. Everything is a learning experience, and you gotta learn from it and move on, and I think he knows that,” Marleau says. “I don’t think he thought it was gonna be as big an issue as it has become.”

On the day the forever Shark returned to Toronto, Marleau was asked if the two-year Toronto experiment was worth it.

The hockey player paused to consider the question.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “You can’t live with regrets.

“Those friendships that I got from coming here, I’m going to have those for the rest of my life.”

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