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Patrick Marleau’s hometown is a speck on the map of Saskatchewan, one of Canada’s prairie provinces. According to Statistics Canada the farming community of Aneroid had a population of 50 in 2016, up from the 40 that were counted five years earlier.
It was a great place to learn the value of hard work and fulfilling responsibilities, but it wasn’t an ideal place to launch the hockey career he dreamed about. “As I got older we had to join small towns to make a team,” he said, “so Vanguard and Aneroid joined together and we had a team. And then when I was about 14 years old I moved to Swift Current and lived with my grandma to play some more competitive hockey and better hockey in Swift Current.”
Although in an especially remote outpost he was inspired by knowing others from his home province had excelled in the NHL. His role models included the great Gordie Howe, who was born in the town of Floral, and Bryan Trottier of Val Marie, who won the Stanley Cup six times and was elected to the Hall of Fame.
“For me, growing up in Saskatchewan, one of the first things you do is look to see what players from Saskatchewan are in the NHL,” Marleau said. “Obviously Gordie comes to the top of that list and Bryan Trottier, Mark Lamb and players like that grew up around my area and made it. It gives you hope, maybe that could be me one day playing in the NHL since these guys before me did it coming from small farming communities in Saskatchewan.”
Marleau not only made it, he became an enduring presence. Now in his 23rd season, he’s poised to break one of Howe’s most revered NHL records.
Marleau, 41, is scheduled to tie Howe’s record of 1,767 games played when the San Jose Sharks face the Wild at Minnesota on Saturday. If all goes well — and Marleau has played nearly 900 consecutive games, last missing one on March 25, 2009, for the birth of his second son — he will break Howe’s record on Monday, when the Sharks play in Las Vegas.
Howe, who was 52 in his final NHL season and played alongside his sons Mark and Marty with the Hartford Whalers, also played 419 regular-season games in the World Hockey Assn. NHL records don’t include statistics from the WHA, which folded in 1979.
“I think it’s a remarkable feat. I’m not sure that it will be broken,” said Kings coach Todd McLellan, who coached Marleau and the Sharks for seven seasons. “It may be one of those records that stay forever, and he deserves it. He’s done everything to earn the accolades that are going to come with it.”
Marleau, drafted second by San Jose in 1997, ranked 23rd in career goals (566) before San Jose faced Minnesota on Friday. He also ranked 50th in points, with 1,196. He has persisted through aches and pains, bumps and bruises, through doubts during his first training camp and the perennial disappointment of never lifting the Stanley Cup. He has adapted to changes brought on by age and by prevailing NHL trends, remaining a steady and positive force as he evolved into a leader and a mentor to young players.
Howe, who died in 2016, has become a mythical figure for his skills, the nasty elbows he delighted in delivering to unsuspecting rivals, and his longevity. The fall of his games-played record is difficult to fathom, but Marleau quietly earned that distinction.
McLellan considers it no coincidence that Marleau’s upbringing is similar to Howe’s. “I think what Patrick has and is maybe missing from today’s generation is he’s farm tough. He’s a big, thick, strong, Saskatchewan farm boy,” McLellan said during a recent videoconference. “That’s what he started out as, and then he was committed to training and to his fitness and he had really good people around him, starting with his family.”
Marleau’s four sons and wife Christina are planning to see him surpass Howe’s record. Landon, 14, Brody, 12, Jagger, 9, and 6-year-old Caleb play hockey, and one played a bit with Howe during a memorable encounter in a hallway at the All-Star game in Montreal in 2009.
“I was playing mini-sticks with Landon, and Gordie came around the corner and grabbed a mini-stick out of my hand and started playing with my oldest son,” Marleau said during a webinar. “I think he might have been 2 or 3 at the time. That was pretty impressive, that he took the time out of his day to make my young son’s day. I didn’t get any pictures of it. I didn’t have my phone on me. But I’ll never get that image out of my head and I’ll never forget that story.”
Marleau said he didn’t think about breaking Howe’s games-played record until the last few seasons. “It’s one of those things you can kind of see that it could be possible if you stay healthy and everything falls into place, but I don’t know if there’s an exact point where I thought that it could be done,” he said. “A lot of talk about it lately. It’s been fun. It’s been a great opportunity to thank everybody along the way that’s helped me get here.”
He acknowledged he’s not sure how much longer he will continue. “I still feel good. 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 when I come back,” he said. After being bought out in 2019 by the Carolina Hurricanes, who had acquired him from Toronto, he signed two one-year deals with San Jose for the minimum salary of $700,000 each season. The Sharks aren’t likely to make the playoffs this season and they’re far from being Cup contenders; the closest they’ve come was in 2016, when they lost a six-game Cup Final to Pittsburgh.
“Every season where it doesn’t happen, it’s a kick in the butt for sure, especially on teams that you know have a really good shot of going a long way,” he said. “Every year you’ve got to go into the season believing you’re going to win. You’re going to win the Stanley Cup, get in the playoffs, that’s how I’ve always approached it.
“That’s what I’m chasing. It’s definitely disappointing that I haven’t won it this far in my career but what’s kept me going all these years is trying to win that Stanley Cup.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.