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Patrick Marleau’s ex-team-mates reflect on the beginnings when Gordie Howe’s record falls: “I still think it’s underrated.”

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In 1997, DVD players were all the rage. The brand new technology wasn’t cheap. Kelly Hrudey found it a little too expensive for his taste at about $ 1,000 per pop. But for Christmas that year the man who lived in his guest house gave him what he characterized as a “game changer” – along with two DVDs (one of which was from a Fleetwood Mac concert).

That guy was Patrick Marleau.

Now, more than 23 years later, the 18-year-old talked to Kelly and his wife Donna about sandwiches until 2, 3 or 4 a.m. and talked about the game, about how things grew up, or just about life becoming the NHL Leader in all games played. If Marleau’s skates land on the ice on Monday night on his first shift for the Sharks at the T-Mobile Arena in Vegas against the Golden Knights, it will be game # 1,768 of his NHL career – one better than Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe .

Before the game, Marleau will put on the Sharks sweater he has known for 1,595 of those games. (He also played eight games for the Penguins and 164 for the Maple Leafs.) Many, many moons ago, in June 1997, at the age of 17, he was drafted second overall by the Sharks. The Seattle Thunderbirds Centerman, who turned 18 in September, joined a rebuilding team that was just entering its seventh year of existence.

“According to the draft, Dean [Lombardi, then the Sharks’ general manager] I let some older players know, “Hey, I have this younger kid. We love him. He comes from a really nice family, but he’s a little kid and he needs your boys’ help, “recalls Tony Granato, who was about to start his 10th NHL season when Marleau was preparing for his first.

“And then he came in, just a personable, personable boy, and he was calm and shy and respectful. He had that little grin and smile on his face that he still has. As an older player, it was really fun to be a boy A guy like this comes in. You could see he had great skills and would have great success in the game. “

Success came. Three All-Star games, 566 goals (23rd all-time), 1,196 points, a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2016, his name fills the Sharks record book and now beats Howe for most NHL games. It was a record that many did not expect to ever fall. After all, Howe played in 26 NHL seasons by the age of 52 (with some seasons in the WHA).

While those who knew Marleau, now 41, from the jump may be shocked that the record is falling, they’re not shocked by what became of aneroid kid, Sask. Back then it wasn’t easy to find out about the boy before training camp – mind you, it was 1997, and like that DVD player the internet was still new – his teammates quickly saw what was making Lombardi so excited.

“I remember we were in an exercise … the whistle goes off, the exercise is over and I went to the bank for a drink,” Hrudey said in a recent interview with Sporting News. “Tony [Granato] comes to me and Tony and I have known each other for many years because we both played together in LA for a long time. . . He walks up to me and says something like, “Oh, wow, Kelly, I can’t believe that Marleau kid.” Tony was a good skater, but he says something like, “I’ll try everything I can just to keep it”. up with him. It looks hard to me, but it looks effortless in Patrick. ‘”

Granato didn’t remember that particular moment while on the phone with Sporting News, instead remembering chasing the striker who was 15 years younger than him and thought to himself, “holy cow”.

Mike Ricci was sold to the Sharks in November 1997 and didn’t know much about the quiet Sasky kid. Lombardi was quick to point this out to Marleau, calling him a tall, capable guy he would love with a great character. Ricci said the analysis got to the point.

“Darryl [Sutter] I used to adjust the lines for the three-round drill and every time I matched his line I would go to Patty and say, “Hey, Patty (whistles) take it easy,” and he calmly took it, but I was still chugging to keep up, “said Ricci, who is now the Sharks development coach.” He was an effortless skater from day one and that might be one thing he was blessed with. But being a natural skater and being in the best of physical shape, preparing and working hard on the ice and the ice, these are the results you will get. “

The results did not come immediately for Marleau. It was only in his eighth game that he scored his first NHL goal, three games after his first NHL point. His first NHL game was October 1, 1997 against an Oilers squad that included Kelly Buchberger, Hall of Famer Kevin Lowe, Doug Weight and goalkeeper Curtis Joseph. If you ask Marleau, he remembers Bryan Marchment who tried to hit him on his first shift.

“The only thing I remember [first game] he was so calm and relaxed, never got insecure, “recalled Granato, noting that Marleau was wearing 14 at the time. Ron Sutter was wearing 12 and Marleau grabbed the iconic digits after Sutter went to Calgary in February 2001, somehow, you know, OK, first game tonight. It’s this big deal, but I’ll just go out and play and I just think he had that nice, even keel to himself not to get overly wound up. “

Durability. Mental strength. Physical preparation. Good genes. Marleau has done a lot to set this record. He has played 898 games in a row (fourth longest in NHL history), starting on April 9, 2009, and has only missed 31 games in his NHL career. Marleau credits the training staff, massage therapists, chiropractors, and an IV bag every now and then when he’s sick with the flu.

“I think in order to have a remarkable career like Patrick, I still think he’s underrated,” said Hrudey, who also says that some of his favorite hockey memories come from when Marleau lived with his family. “I don’t think the general ice hockey fan really appreciates how well he has been consistent throughout his career.”

This consistency began even before he laced up his skates for his first NHL game. Both Granato and Darryl Sutter were quick to point out that they were impressed with Marleau in exhibition games – Granato specifically recalled scoring his first professional goal in a game against the Kings in San Diego when he was just 17.

“Two things about him that stand out, his natural ability – it’s not that he had to work a lot to get bigger or stronger or anything; he was a big, strong kid when he walked in – [and] He was a great skater, “recalled Sutter, who ran Sharks’ Bank for the first 420 games of Marleau’s career (his first season in San Jose was also 1997-98).

“When you combine these two guys usually stay healthy. There are guys who get beaten up and don’t take care of themselves, and their careers don’t last that long. But Patrick had because of these natural things and a long, successful career then fits He’s on himself. Kudos to him. He’s a really good person and a really good player. “

When asked what his legacy was supposed to be on a recent Zoom call with reporters, Marleau replied that he wanted him to play hard, give his all, and be a good teammate. If you talk to his ex-boyfriends and his bank manager, they will say it definitely was him.

“He respected the game. He respected the people in the game,” Granato said, adding that the kid would hang out on the streets with the veterans. “You know, for as young as he was, [he] was very mature in how to act as a teammate. It was also easy for his teammates to fall in love with a child like this and want him to be well. “

There is no schedule as to when Marleau will officially hang them. He hinted at following the Stanley Cup on that Zoom call, adding that he was feeling good and would try to keep going for as long as possible.

Maybe Ricci was right all along?

“I remember we used to be joking,” he said with a grin. “I kept telling him you could play until you were 60. And of course I exaggerated a bit, but maybe I didn’t exaggerate as much as I thought.”

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Steven Gregory