Friday November 20th, 2015

BOSTON – At the beginning of his 18-year road in pro hockey, before the 1,348 career NHL games, 999 career points and steady drumbeat of trade rumors that are still rat-a-tat-tatting, Patrick Marleau glimpsed his future while living in a guest house out back. He was still a teenager from a town with a population smaller than his new team’s traveling party—and the second pick in the 1997 draft by the San Jose Sharks, who were in their seventh year of existence. Veteran goalie Kelly Hrudey, who was close to wrapping up his 15-year NHL career, offered the rookie a place to live with a separate entrance. Marleau often ventured to the main house for lunch or dinner and was included in family events with Hrudey, his wife and three children. “You don’t think about, ‘Hey, I want this right away,’ but you get an idea of what a family situation looks like as an NHL player,” Marleau says. “That was the biggest thing.”

A few moves and many years later, Marleau now lives in Silicon Valley, a neighbor to CEOs and other bigwigs in the tech hotbed, one more father at the PTA meetings arranging play dates and birthday parties. Along with his family, he has seen the Bay Area blossom as a hockey market, at one point claiming the nation’s largest adult hockey league, all the while considering Marleau one of its own.

As longtime teammate Joe Thornton—coincidentally the only player drafted (by Boston) before Marleau in ’97—says, “He’s just a staple. Everyone in San Jose knows him. He’s the face of the Sharks and he always will be.”

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Only 10 other players have spent more time with a single NHL franchise than Marleau, who helped propel the Sharks to 15 playoff appearances during his first 16 seasons. Among active players, he ranks fifth in career goals, third in game-winning goals, fourth in power play goals and fifth in points. As of this writing he is within one point of becoming the first Shark to reach the 1,000-point mark. The numbers are a testament to his production and durability. Marleau last missed a game in 2008-09, around the time the second of his four sons was born. He has also had letters stripped from his sweater and endured two straight defeats in the Western Conference Finals that left him shy of his elusive first Stanley Cup. 

And did we mention those annual trade rumors?

For a publicly reserved, almost shy 36-year-old from Aneroid, a farming town in Saskatchewan with a recently reported population of 40, Marleau leapt into the (relatively) big-city life because that was the path toward his dreams. He grew up skating on his family’s small pond, shoveling snow off with his siblings, chopping a hole in the ice so the cattle could drink. He played junior hockey with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, a teammate of Saskatchewan sons from other farming communities, and registered 199 points in 143 games before the Sharks plucked him behind Thornton.

Years later, when current Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon joined the Thunderbirds, Marleau’s reputation met him at the door.

“A big thing was hey, Patty Marleau developed here, and seeing how well he’s done at the NHL level,” Dillon says. “I’ve been watching the NHL my whole life, seeing how guys got to where they did and how they did it at certain levels before, seeing his success at the Western League level. He’s the ultimate professional and a guy I look up to, for sure, and a guy I’m sure a lot of people do.”

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Which is why Marleau’s teammates basically shrugged as Marleau handled the latest batch of trade rumors—Sportsnet reported “his name is out there” and wrote that he would “accept a trade to one of three teams.” It didn’t bother the other Sharks, Thornton says, because it didn’t seem to bother Marleau.

“Over the years, yeah, it’s always been a constant,” Marleau says. “There’s always something going on, you know?”

Still, the trade chatter was noisy enough that first-year coach Pete DeBoer felt obligated to chat with his respected veteran forward. The conversation was brief, like most are with Marleau, the message understood by both sides.

“I’m not one to stick my head in the sand and ignore things that come out like that,” DeBoer says. “I wanted to have a conversation with him, but it wasn’t about what he was feeling or anything like that. Every player as the right to manage his own career, how he wants to manage it. For me, it intersects with what we’re doing at the rink every day and I just wanted him to understand that, from my perspective, there’s been no issue so far with what we’re trying to do and I didn’t anticipate any moving forward. 

“He has to do what he has to do from a personal and professional point of view, but I hadn’t seen any signs of that leaking into what he was doing on a daily basis for us and his commitment. I didn’t see that changing, so I just wanted to make sure he knew where I stood on it.”

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Four days after the report emerged, Marleau notched his 998th career point, an overtime winner in Buffalo that nudged the Sharks back onto the positive side of .500. Three days later, here at TD Garden in Boston, Marleau broke a 3–3 tie in the second period by roofing a rebound on the power play, angled in tight quarters along the goal line. In what counted for a raucous celebration by his standards, Marleau circled behind the net, raised both arms and lifted one knee, like he was the Karate Kid about to knock out Johnny of the Cobra Kai.

“That’s vintage Patty Marleau,” Thornton said, after San Jose wrapped up a 5–4 win. “Usually the pump and the leg up. I’ve seen it so many times. It doesn’t get old.”

Nor, it seems, does Marleau, still lauded by teammates for an elite skating ability, even as his career nears its third decade. “He could probably play, if he wants to, until 40 or in his 40s,” says his agent, Pat Brisson. “It’s up to him. He’s been very consistent.”

Marleau’s kids are settled in San Jose and enrolled on local hockey teams. His life is there, as it has been since those early days in Hrudey’s guest house. Yet the end may be near. One of the heroes of Marleau’s  youth was Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, who ranks fourth all-time in most games logged for a single franchise. But the Hall of Famer also got traded after 21 years in Boston, finishing his career in Colorado, an abrupt end to such rare longevity, although it did end in legendary fashion with Bourque hoisting that long elusive Cup.

“It crosses your mind, yeah, definitely,” Marleau says of sticking with one team his entire career. “But it is a business. You never know what’s going to happen or how good [the Sharks are] going to be. There’s so many variables it’s hard to get locked into one thing.”

For 18 seasons, through great promise and crushing disappointment, through the respect of his peers and swirl of trade rumors, Patrick Marleau has soldiered on, about as close to being locked in as a player can get.

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