The celebration for Patrick Marleau breaking Gordie Howe’s NHL regular season games played record could have easily been scheduled for sometime in 2022.
After being drafted No. 2 overall in 1997, Marleau nearly was returned to his junior team before signing ahead of a late September deadline. That opened the door for the 18-year-old to make his NHL debut on Oct. 1, 1997 against the Oilers.
(Marleau also just made the cutoff for the 1997 draft. Had he been born a day later — Sept. 16 — he would not have been eligible until 1998.)
Twenty-four years later, Marleau will play regular season game No. 1,768 Monday night against the Golden Knights. Should he continue his career into 2021-22, he will likely pass Mark Messier (1,992) for the NHL record for most regular season and playoff games played. He’s currently at 1,962.
According to the NHL, 8,100 players have appeared in at least one game in league history. Only five — Howe, Marleau, Messier (1,756), Jaromir Jagr (1,733), and Ron Francis (1,731) have suited up for at least 1,700 games.
Dedication to fitness pays off
When the Sharks called Jeff Friesen to ask if he’d like to be included in a tribute video for Marleau, he was thinking it was for the franchise’s games played record. When he learned that the record Marleau would be breaking was the NHL one owned by fellow Saskatchewan Gordie Howe, he was in disbelief.
“To play at his age and go through that grind, it’s not easy to do,” Friesen recently told NBC Sports.
Friesen had plenty in common with Marleau when he arrived in San Jose. They were both from Saskatchewan; both had dominant final seasons in the Western Hockey League; and were the youngest players in the NHL during their own rookie seasons. They also shared a love of training. But it was pretty clear that Marleau’s fitness gifts were on another level.
“They modeled San Jose after the [NFL’s San Francisco] 49ers, so fitness became a forefront and I was one of the leaders for [the young players],” Friesen said. “We took training very serious. We’d ride the mountain, there was a ton of guys [who joined in]. Patty would turn around. It wasn’t for him. But he’d still go to camp and blow a 65 VO2 [max].
“So I’d train the whole mountain, and I blew a 55 VO2. I trained four days a week, trained like an animal, and this young kid came in and blows a 65 VO2. It’s like, OK, he’s just a freak.”
(The VO2 max test measures the maximum amount of oxygen one can utilize during intense training.)
Both on and off the ice, it became clear to Marleau’s teammates that keeping up with the young kid from Aneroid, Saskatchewan would be a challenge.
Mike Ricci, then in his eighth NHL season, would find himself matched up in drills with Marleau and ask the rookie to ease up on the old vet.
“He would take it easy but I was still chugging to keep up,” Ricci said. “He was an effortless skater from day one. That might be a thing he was blessed with, but being a natural skater and being in tip-top physical condition and preparing himself and working hard off the ice and on the ice, and these are the results you get.”
[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]
There was a time when Ricci used to joke that Marleau could play until he was 60.
“Obviously I was exaggerating a bit, but maybe I wasn’t exaggerating as much as I thought,” he said.
Dedication is one reason why Marleau is an active NHL player 24 years after being drafted. Another reason was he didn’t get caught up in off-ice activity that would affect his game.
“He wasn’t a guy that was out partying or chasing those dreams,” Friesen said. “He was reading Mario Lemieux books. His heart was in the game of hockey and he was a hockey nerd, like a Michael Jordan mentality. He just really wanted to do something special, so it’s not a surprise that he has.
“He’s just a remarkable talent. The fact that he’s able to play as long as he has, I think when his legs slow down he’s still faster than most of the league.”
Friesen played with Marleau in San Jose through the 2000-01 season. When Friesen returned in 2008 for a training camp tryout, he noticed the same quiet guy, but a physically different one.
“When you think how hard you have to train to maintain at that level, that’s what I saw with Patty,” he said. “He just grew into that. When you hit your 20s, a lot of things are kicking in your early years, energy-wise and your body’s clicking. The more you train in your later years, that’s the only way you can sustain for that long. … That record, that’s not an easy one to beat.”
Respect and admiration from around the NHL
A few months after graduating high school, Marleau was making his NHL debut at 18 years and 16 days old as the NHL’s youngest player.
“[O]bviously, it’s not a job when it’s something you love and you get to do it every day,” Marleau said last week. “I just couldn’t believe the situation I was in, just getting out of high school, getting out of junior, coming into training camp and knowing that was going to be my life.”
It’s been a life mostly spent with the Sharks, save for the 172 games he played with the Maple Leafs and Penguins. It’s been a fruitful career as well with 566 goals, 1,196 points; gold medals representing Canada at two Olympics, the IIHF World Championship, and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey; plus over a dozen franchise records.
“I want to be looked upon when I’m gone that I gave it my all,” Marleau said. “Enjoyed the game, loved the game, loved being around the team, loved winning games. Those are the biggest things.”
The respect doesn’t stop with Marleau’s teammates. Opponents have long admired his dedication to the game and ability to continue playing at a high level. That was evident recently when players from the Ducks, Kings and Wild made sure to congratulate him after games.
Very cool that this has been a trend after the last few games, and I’d only expect to see more of the same through the next week. pic.twitter.com/uovP5b1HAR
— Brodie Brazil (@BrodieNBCS) April 15, 2021
Kings players showed their respect for Patty Marleau after playing him for the final time this regular season 🤝 pic.twitter.com/JOo99vVmRo
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) April 11, 2021
“For those guys to do all that, it’s humbling,” Marleau said. “You’ve played against them a lot of games, a lot of hard-fought battles. There’s mutual respect there. For them to take the time to come over and shake my hand and congratulate me on what can possibly happen here in the next few days, I don’t take that lightly. That obviously means a lot to me.”
A trade to a Stanley Cup contender didn’t happen for Marleau this year after last season’s deadline move to the Penguins. Whether it was his decision to stay or lack of interest around the league is between him and general manager Doug Wilson. While he likely won’t reach double digit goals for the first time in his 23-season career, he’s adapted his game and proven he can hang with players born after he entered the NHL.
We don’t know when Marleau will say his goodbyes to the NHL, but he doesn’t sound like a player who’s ready to walk away.
“I still feel good,” he said. “I’d like to keep playing as long as I can, as long as my family is willing to keep supporting me and see me off on road trips and welcome me home coming back. We’ll try and keep it going as long as we can.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.