NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. — You won’t find too many people celebrating their 39th birthday by getting serenaded from a pair of friends whose ages add up to 41.
It’s a testament to Patrick Marleau’s longevity at the highest level of professional hockey that he found himself in that very situation on Saturday night — looking like he’d rather be diving in front of a Shea Weber slapshot than sitting on a packed restaurant patio while Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner sang him ‘Happy Birthday’ with cellphone cameras rolling.
Most NHLers are long retired by the time there are 39 candles on the cake. They don’t get a chance to strike up a unique friendship like the one that exists between the Toronto Maple Leafs teammates.
Marleau is equal parts mentor and marvel inside the dressing room. He’s grown extremely close with Matthews and Marner, in particular, despite not always understanding the slang used in their group text conversations.
The way the 21-year pro carries himself, and the high level he still plays at, has provided him all the cachet needed to break down the generational barriers between them.
“It’s unbelievable. We give it to him all the time,” Matthews said during a break in training camp. “It’s kind of crazy to think about — that he was playing his first year in the league and myself, Mitch, were just a couple months old. I think that’s a [testament] to him and the way he’s treated his body. He’s stayed in shape and it helps when you skate like the wind because that’s kind of today’s game, right?”
Consider that Marleau was the youngest player in the NHL when he made his debut on Oct. 1, 1997 and is now its fourth-oldest — trailing Matt Cullen (41), Zdeno Chara (41) and good buddy Joe Thornton (39).
Incredibly, he’s missed just one game since turning 30 and could climb as high as fifth on the NHL’s all-time games-played list by the end of this season. It’s within the realm of possibility that he may eventually pass Gordie Howe for top spot.
You need a sprinkle of good luck to play every regular-season game for nine years running. He’s obviously found a formula to keep himself in top shape, as well, with plyometrics, physio work and ice baths at the second intermission of each game among the routines he most swears by.
“I better get on his workout program,” said Matthews. “It’s like he’s not even breathing out there [on the ice]. Nothing fazes him.”
“Genetically, he’s just got it,” added teammate Nazem Kadri. “He’s just one of those guys with super loose hips. … It seems like he comes back every summer in even better shape. I’m not quite sure how he does it, but if I’m able to do it that long, I’ll be more than happy. He’s certainly a role model.”
The main reason the Leafs were able to land Marleau in free agency last summer was their willingness to go to three years on a contract carrying a $6.25-million cap hit. It was a risk, given what we know about aging curves and how valuable cap space is, but he lived up to his end of the bargain with a 27-goal season in Year 1.
Marleau is due to occupy prime roster real estate alongside Matthews and William Nylander in 2018-19. Even with Tyler Ennis place-holding for Nylander early in training camp because of a contract stalemate, that trio looked dangerous throughout the scrimmages at Gale Centre over the weekend.
It’s a line that Marleau really wants to see work. He figures he needs to put himself in positions to finish — something that could help towards Matthews’s stated goal of producing more assists.
“They command the puck and they play the right way,” said Marleau. “They go to the right areas, they’re both highly skilled. To play with high-end skill players like that, you know you’re going to get your looks, so you’ve just got to be ready.”
He also understands better than most how long the season can be and how important it is to find outlets that provided a break from the rigours of job.
That often means spending free time on the road with Matthews and Marner, who have tried to educate him on the latest trends. It’s certainly helped Marleau with his four sons at home.
“He’s getting better. I think he’s learned a lot, [but] he’s got a long way to go,” said Matthews. “I think he’s catching up to his kids and all the stuff that they’re learning at school with their friends. He’s got the language down, he’s like a kid again.
“He’s a great guy. I mean, he’s so fun to be around. He’s so nice to everybody. I’m excited to play with him this year. I think we’ll do well.”