Any hockey observer can tell you they make ‘em farm-boy tough on the Prairies. That strength doesn’t have to come at the expense of sweetness, though. Take, for instance, the scene that involved two sons of Saskatchewan more than 10 years ago at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal.
There was Patrick Marleau, exploiting a patch of concrete in the bowels of the Bell Centre to play a game of mini-stick with his then-toddler son, Landon. Suddenly, 80-year-old Gordie Howe did what the game’s best goal-scorers do — materialize from nowhere — and jumped in on the action.
“Gordie came around the corner and grabbed a mini-stick out of my hands and started playing,” Marleau said. “I didn’t get any pictures of it — I didn’t have my phone on me — but I’ll never get the image out of my head and I’ll never forget that story.”
Landon is 14 now, the oldest of four hockey-playing boys whose old man is a 41-year-old San Jose Sharks legend. On Monday night, the entire family will be at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas as Mr. Marleau laces up his skates for the 1,768th time in his NHL career and passes “Mr. Hockey” on the all-time games played list.
It seems fitting that the two guys who top a category that calls for buckets of grit and determination are both Saskatchewan-level strong. And, to flip the coin over again, there’s also something endearing about the humility of their shared home. When he was a kid, Marleau would scan rosters to find out who else from his neck of the woods had made The Show. Bryan Trottier. Mark Lamb. And, of course, the very guy whose NHL career started in the 1940s facing Maurice Richard and ended in Wayne Gretzky’s rookie season of 1979-80.
“Growing up in Saskatchewan, one of the first things you do is look to see what players from Saskatchewan are in the NHL,” said Marleau, speaking late last week ahead of his milestone contest. “Obviously Gordie [is at] the top of that list.”
Now, Marleau will headline a list that, perhaps, people outside of the game don’t appreciate as much as those on the inside. Goals and points are easy to fete; durability sounds like something you look for in a car. Players themselves, though, are always quick to cite how many games a guy suited up for. They have a deep understanding that just getting out there over and over is an accomplishment itself.
That’s important to remember as we celebrate a player who is too easy to take for granted. The second-overall pick in 1997 spent a huge portion of his career playing games that started at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time, after much of the hockey-watching public had turned in. Though he shone on excellent Sharks teams, Marleau didn’t make the Stanley Cup Final until Year 18 of his NHL journey. He never strolled across a stage and accepted a major NHL award. Though his skating was always elite, there was never one trick in Marleau’s bag that landed him on nightly highlights. He didn’t one-time his way into our hearts like Alex Ovechkin or tickle us with feathery passes like his old Sharks pal, Joe Thornton. Canadian teams that won Olympic gold in 2010 and ’14 benefited from Marleau’s dependable play, but the focus was also going to be on the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.
Marleau was simply really, really good for a long, long time. Like, a long time. It’s easy to look at an over-40, bottom-sixer now and forget how recently he was a needle-moving player. Marleau scored 27 goals at age 37 during the final season of his first term with the Sharks. The next campaign, as a 38-year-old Toronto Maple Leaf, he popped 27 more. The next-closest goal-scorer who played both those years past his 37th birthday was Matt Cullen, who scored a total of 24 times compared to Marleau’s 54.
Of course, his time in Toronto was ultimately disappointing thanks to two first-round losses, which led to him being fastened to a first-round pick so he could be traded out of town. That, unfortunately, was in line with the emptiness the Sharks felt so often in the playoffs, when a team that appeared destined to win it all at some point could never get over the hump. If you’re wondering, Marleau is tied with Zdeno Chara for No. 1 among active players with 195 post-season contests. Of the top 11 players on that list, the only ones without Cups are the four guys who bled San Jose teal — Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and, of course, Marleau.
“It’s huge,” Marleau said of the heartache. “Every season where it doesn’t happen it’s a kick in the butt. Especially on teams you know have a really good shot of going a long way. Every year you have to go into the season believing you [can] win the Stanley Cup. That’s what I’m chasing. It’s definitely disappointing that I haven’t won it [at this point] in my career, but that’s what kept me going all these years, is trying to win that Stanley Cup.”
While that won’t be happening this year in San Jose, Marleau isn’t ready to close doors yet. As long as he feels good and as long as his family will continue to support him, No. 12 would like to keep playing. Maybe he’s been the victim of some bad post-season bounces, but Marleau certainly acknowledges the luck it took for him to put together a career resume like this. Even the fact he was born when he was — Sept. 15, 1979, less than a month before Howe started his final season with the Hartford Whalers — was a bit of a break in terms of racking up GPs. Had he come into the world one day later, Marleau would have been a late-birthday selection in 1998 instead of the second pick behind Thornton in 1997.
The way it worked out, though, he got started on his career by playing 74 games and recording 32 points as the youngest player in the league in 1997-98. (At 18 years and 16 days, he was actually the youngest player to debut in the NHL since the mid-40s). Recalling his first training camp, the kid that lives inside every hockey player leaps out of Marleau.
“Probably one of the biggest things that I can remember is the per diem money we would get for training camp,” he said with a laugh. “I was pretty excited about that. A little walk-around money; you can go to the mall and start picking out things you like that you couldn’t get before when you didn’t have money. And then just going to the rink and being able to call it your job. It’s not a job when it’s something you love and you get to do it every day. I couldn’t believe the situation I was in, just getting out of high school, out of [major] junior, coming into training camp and knowing that that was going to be my life. It was a pretty exciting part of my career.”
We might be at the other end now, but that doesn’t mean all the thrills are gone. Even if the big prize is likely to elude Marleau, maybe a smaller victory is within reach. Howe — a week past his 52nd birthday and playing beside son, Marty — scored in his final NHL game, a 5-3 win for Hartford over his old team from Detroit. Maybe Marleau will find the back of the net in his final contest. Or better yet, in front of wife, Christina, and the boys when he passes Gordie for the record in Vegas.
Wouldn’t that be sweet?