Why Maple Leafs’ Patrick Marleau will never forget where he came from

Watch as Auston Matthews reveals a Patrick Marleau jersey as a tribute to the former Sharks favourite, getting the San Jose crowd going.

Patrick Marleau’s four young boys just returned from a midwinter’s beach vacation in Turks and Caicos.

Maybe after school today they’ll go for a twirl on their pristine backyard rink, contracted by Dad and complete with NHL-style boards and a blue maple leaf painted at centre ice.

Or maybe one of Landon, Brody, Jagger and Caleb’s not-so-biological big brothers, superstars Auston Matthews or Mitchell Marner, will swing by for mini sticks and karaoke.

No, Marleau’s children are not quite growing up in the blue-collar manner of their father — the humblest of Saskatchewan farm boys turned enduring hockey wonder, a gentle man of iron with an outside shot at breaking province-mate Gordie Howe’s record of NHL games played.

That would be impossible.

Life under the roof of a Hall of Fame–bound, two-time-Olympic-champion father who will have raked more than $100 million in salary over his enduring career couldn’t possibly be the same as life under the roof of a mixed-grain farmer from Aneroid, Sask. — a sleepy village whose population swelled from 40 to 50 from 2011 to 2016, but remains a three-hour drive from the nearest airport.

“The biggest thing now for me when I go back is, I take the kids there and show them how I grew up, some of the things I did as a kid. Some of the fun things, but also put ’em to work a bit and do some work on the farm,” says Marleau. “That’s the tough part — trying to instil the same values I had growing up. We try to do that as best we can.”

How Marleau grew up is the youngest of three siblings in the same farmhouse his parents, Denis and Jeanette, still live in. Older brother Richard was responsible for helping Denis with the morning’s farm chores, and Patrick took the after-school shift.

“In the summer, it was all hands on deck, chasing cattle, branding, or going out on the tractor,” Marleau says. “My brother’s idea was to try and make money with pigs. I think he got the four bigger pigs, and I got the four little ones.”

They’d see mom Jeanette rush home from her days as a schoolteacher to whip up dinner for five, then hit the garden and dirty her nails.

“She was nonstop most of the time,” Marleau says. “Sacrificing.”

Jeanette’s sacrifice escalated when her youngest’s obsession planted the seed of a profession. When his responsibilities had been checked off, Marleau would reach for a stick that, at 39, he’s never let go.

Hockey Night in Canada intermissions meant Patrick and Richard stickhandling the shine off the kitchen floor with their indoor games. Warmer weather meant Patrick using a golf ball or whatever was available to work on his dangles around the farm.

“You’re by yourself. It’s quiet. You can’t see your neighbours. I don’t think I’d trade it for growing up in the city,” a 17-year-old Marleau told the the Mercury News prior to being drafted by the San Jose Sharks. “But I don’t know if I could live out here all my life.”

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Even a town as sleepy as his had a rink, and the Marleaus’ 1,600-acre farm contained a small pond that would freeze over for extra shinny sessions.

It’s those backyard, fresh-air games that inspired Marleau to recreate the experience for his own sons on their Toronto lot. Aneroid on steroids.

Patrick is told that Denis first knotted his skates at age three. He started playing at five. Quickly, Marleau’s talent outgrew his village.

“My dad would travel with me to hockey most weekends, and Mom would be with my brother and sister (Denise), taking them to their sports and stuff like that,” Marleau says.

He pauses a beat to consider what he picked up from his parents.

“Work ethic. And just trying to be a good person would be the other big thing as well.”

“I can’t explain how great of a guy [Marleau] is and how close we are in our relationship,” Matthews said in the moments after he honoured his linemate by ripping off his own sweater to reveal a No. 12 MARLEAU jersey at San Jose’s All-Star Weekend. “He treats everybody so well. It doesn’t matter who you are — a random person on the street or a teammate that plays with him — he treats everybody so kindly.”

To pursue his dream, a 12-year-old Marleau needed to start skating an hour north of home, in Swift Current, where he’d been born (Aneroid can’t support a hospital). By 14, he’d left the farm for good and moved in with Grandma, who lived just down the street from the home of the Swift Current Broncos.

“If I wanted to play hockey, that’s where I had to go to get some exposure. It was a great place to grow up and it was close to home,” Marleau says. “It was only an hour away, but the two years living with my grandma helped me out quite a bit with being away from home. The first year I was lucky enough that my sister was going to school in Swift Current, so she was there as well.

“But it was tough: 14 years old living away from home. I got homesick once. After that… I wouldn’t say clear sailing, but it got a lot of better.”

The twin remedies for homesickness in Swift Current were playing hockey and watching hockey.

Marleau, a smooth-striding forward, lit it up with Midget AAA Legionnaires and is still the club’s all-time points leader (219 in 84 games).

So big and dynamic was he that, at 14, Marleau was invited to compete with 16- and 17-year-olds at the 1995 Canada Games in Grand Prairie, where he was interviewed by Scott Oake, a cast member of his favourite TV show.

When he wasn’t practising, Marleau would walk from Grandma’s to watch the Broncos play.

“It was only, like, two bucks or five bucks to get in,” Marleau smiles, “so I’d always go to games when I was in town.”

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Marleau still recalls the excitement he felt, at age 10, when the star-studded Broncos — led by Sheldon Kennedy and Geoff Sanderson — won the 1989 Memorial Cup.

He remembers local deity Joe Sakic, who piled up 293 points in two seasons in Swift Current, and Sanderson making a dinner appearance in the nearby village of Vanguard, and approaching the head table to secure autographs form the junior stars.

“That was huge for me,” Marleau says. “I wanted to play for the Broncos until later on I realized the NHL was on top of that.”

When Marleau was ready to graduate to the WHL, in 1995, the Seattle Thunderbirds stole the emerging legend away from rural Saskatchewan, and two years later he was embarking on one of the most consistent pro careers in history.

“Just think, you’re going to make more money than I ever have,” Denis told Patrick in those eye-opening days leading up to the 1997 draft. “Don’t ever forget where you came from.”

The farmer’s son would set all kinds of franchise records in San Jose; he’d share a Team Canada World Cup victory (2004) with former Bronco Sakic; and all that hard work would keep him in Stanley Cup contention when a fellow Sasky, Mike Babcock, lured “the GOAT” to Toronto and plopped him on a line with 21-year-old phenom.

Alongside Matthews, Marleau has caught fire, again, putting up four points in his past four outings. He has a shot at a 16th 20-goal campaign.

“When you’re 25 and it doesn’t go as good, everyone says, ‘No big deal.’ When you start getting [older], they always say, ‘Oh, the wheels are off, you’re done,’” Babcock says.

“The wheels ain’t off. He ain’t done.”

At least once a winter, Denis and Jeanette leave the farm to watch their son play for the Maple Leafs. And once every summer, the ageless Marleau dutifully returns the favour, packing his brood and travelling home to quiet Aneroid to help with some chores.

“There’s always a stop in Swift Current on the way,” Marleau says, “to see some people.”

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