Patrick Marleau‘s speed on the ice is legendary. His skating is a primary reason the 41-year-old San Jose Sharks forward has endured through 23 seasons to play in his 1,768th career game on Monday in Las Vegas, passing Gordie Howe for the most in NHL history.
Off the ice, his speed is legendary for a very different reason: No one in the dressing room can get naked faster than Patrick Marleau.
Players have 18 minutes during intermission. The coach takes some of that time to address the team. The rest of the time is for recharging and preparation. Some players take their helmets off. Some untie their skates to relieve some pressure. But Marleau could enter the room and disrobe so quickly that one former teammate said it was like he was made of Velcro. He would then leave to either jump into the cold tub in the trainer’s office or into a cold shower.
“I’ve never seen a guy get dressed and undressed so fast, just to get in the cold tub after each period. Which is insane. It’s absolutely insane. Maybe he isn’t all there,” said Dan Boyle, a former teammate of Marleau’s on the Sharks.
After the icy dip, Marleau would go back to his stall and pull his gear back on in record time, in a routine that’s left countless teammates on the Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins stupefied.
“Most people look at that and think it must be exhausting to do every game, but he’s done it. It’s quirky, but you have to respect it,” said Sharks coach Bob Boughner.
A few teammates wondered if it was a superstition; perhaps Marleau jumped in an ice bath one game, scored a hat trick and the routine was cemented. Hockey players are like that. But Marleau said there is a scientific method behind it.
“It was inspired by one of the pieces of equipment that we got called Vasper,” he said. “It’s a compression therapy where you put compression cuffs on your arms and legs, and there’s cooling on it as well. It helps you trap lactic acid, with your body producing its own HGH to help with your recovery and help build muscle.
“The science behind it was that cooling your core temperature and your body helps with muscle fibers contracting and getting that explosiveness on the ice. Keeping you nice and cool.”
That’s an apt description of Marleau: “nice and cool.” How ironic that one of Gordie Howe’s most celebrated records fell to a player many feel is his antithesis. Gordie was “Mr. Elbows,” as nasty and intimidating as they come. Marleau has a pair of kind eyebrows, a knack for avoiding on-ice violence and an attitude that’s so laid-back that some have criticized him for it.
“It’s a macho sport. It’s an alpha male sport. If you don’t play that game, sometimes you can be mislabeled,” Boyle said.
Here are the key factors behind Marleau setting this remarkable record.
‘You can’t be taught that’
Ask Marleau what he remembers about his NHL debut on Oct. 1, 1997, in San Jose and the first name he brings up is Edmonton defenseman Bryan Marchment. He was a notorious, reckless hitter, and he lined up the rookie on his first NHL shift.
“He tried to get a good hit on me. Luckily, I might have tripped and fell and got out of the way,” recalled Marleau.
Hockey is an injurious sport. Every week, players miss time due to the actions of opponents. Careers have been cut short due to concussions caused by catastrophic hits. One of the reasons Marleau has stayed healthy during his record-setting career — including a current streak of 899 consecutive games played — is by avoiding those dangerous plays through his agility and hockey acumen.
“He stayed away from injuries. That’s No. 1, to be able to play that many games,” said Vincent Damphousse, an analyst for RDS who played with Marleau for six seasons in San Jose. “You have to have the good vision to see where the hits are coming from and to try and avoid getting crushed. Patrick had a lot of those skills: He was fast. He was hard to hit. He was aware of what was around him.
“You see guys getting concussions, one after the other. They play really hard, but they don’t always see what’s coming. They’re not aware,” Damphousse continued. “Why was [Wayne] Gretzky so good at not getting hit? Because he knew where everybody was. Patrick was able to feel where the pressure was coming from. You can’t be taught that. I believe there’s some luck involved, but I also really believe that guys that are aware of their surroundings usually get hurt less.”
Boyle believes Marleau’s longevity can be chalked up to his intelligence on the ice. “There’s being ‘hockey smart’ and then there’s smart in knowing how to protect your body and knowing the game and knowing how to make it through a season. Some guys can’t, because they’re unaware out there. But he knew how to read the game and protect himself,” he said.
But Marleau’s ability to elude hits and his propensity for avoiding on-ice violence have been used by critics throughout his career to paint him as a “soft” player. Former teammate Jeremy Roenick was perhaps the loudest, bemoaning Marleau’s lack of physicality and emotion for the Sharks. In 2011, he went as far as to categorize Marleau’s playoff performance as “gutless” on national television.
Boyle was on that Sharks team and couldn’t help but hear those critiques of Marleau as a soft player.
“Part of it was his demeanor. He had such a mild, soft, quiet demeanor. Sometimes that can be misinterpreted as somebody that doesn’t care. Somebody that’s soft,” Boyle said. “If you don’t play in this macho sport with your elbows high and your stick up in someone’s face and get in scrums, you might be mislabeled. Some guys have to play with their elbows high because that’s their role. He never needed to do that. His effort should never be questioned.”
Jeff Friesen, who played with and against Marleau for nine seasons, said Marleau is “disciplined and so contained” as a player.
“He didn’t let his emotions get to him, ever,” he said. “But some people questioned that at times. To be honest, when you don’t show emotion, it’s like, ‘Do you care?’ There was a lot of that. But he always held his emotions in check, played his game and did it consistently. That’s why he’s still playing.”
Friesen also believes his toughness is underrated.
“He was at such an advantage with the way he skated. He could skate like the wind. He grew up on a river in Saskatchewan. But he was strong, too. He lifted bales of hay growing up. He had farmer’s strength,” Friesen recalled.
Ironically, Marleau is taller (6-foot-2) and heavier (220 pounds for most of his career) than Howe was during his playing days. Friesen remembered seeing Marleau absorb, rather than avoid, hits.
“He would have his head down through the neutral zone, and someone like [defenseman] Darius Kasparaitis would come through to hit him. And Kasparaitis tried to put you in the 10th row on his hits. Patty wouldn’t see him coming, but then Patty would frickin’ run him over,” he said. “You can’t play that long, at that level, and be soft.”
You can, however, be hard to catch.
When he was coaching the Sharks, Darryl Sutter liked to match up his lines in a three-lap drill in practice. Marleau would skate on a scoring line. Mike Ricci, who is now a Sharks assistant coach, would play on a checking line. When he’d match up against Marleau in the race, he would tell the swift-skating center to take it easy on him. Marleau would oblige, yet Ricci said he would still be “chugging” just to keep up.
“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 working hard on the ice and off the ice — these are the results you get,” Ricci said. “There are a lot of effortless skaters out there that can’t play as long. I used to tell him all the time, ‘You could play until you’re 60.’ I was exaggerating a bit. But maybe I wasn’t exaggerating as much as I thought.”
Marleau’s speed has always been his calling card. “The main asset of my career was that I could skate well,” he said.
In the 1997 NHL draft, where the Sharks drafted him second overall behind Boston Bruins pick Joe Thornton, the scouting report on Marleau read “an outstanding skater with quick acceleration and speed.”
That speed has helped Marleau score 566 goals (23rd all time) and amass 1,196 points (50th all time) during his career. Consistency was the name of the game: He scored over 20 goals in 15 seasons, the last time in 2017-18 with the Maple Leafs.
“His skating has always been exceptional,” Boyle said. “As Father Time caught up, his skating still seems to be better than most guys and at worst on par with the rest of the guys. That allowed him to play pretty long.”
Or as Damphousse put it: “That’s the one natural ability that he has. To be as fast as Patrick is, you’re going to be faster than the average of the league, even when you slow down.”
It’s one thing to have a fast motor. It’s another thing to never have the “check engine” light come on.
‘It ain’t easy to change a body’
When asked about games he nearly missed due to illness or injury, Marleau said there were “too many to count.”
“There were games you get the flu. I’ve gone in and gotten IVs in the morning of games, just trying to keep the fluids up. You do what you can. And the training staffs have done everything that’s humanly possible to keep me out there,” he said.
Well, we counted the ones he did miss: Marleau has played 1,768 of 1,799 possible games in his career. He hasn’t missed a game since the 2008-09 season. Consider how this stability rates within context of Marleau’s rookie season:
In 1997-98, 108 non-goalies besides Marleau made their regular-season debuts. They went on to average 349 regular-season NHL games for their careers.
There were 10 skaters on the 1997-98 Sharks who would finish with at least 1,000 games in their careers. But the average career of a skater on that team was 736.1 games.
Friesen was the leading scorer for the Sharks in Marleau’s rookie season. “When Patty came in, instead of going out, he was reading books about Mario Lemieux. He was a hockey nerd,” he recalled.
The fitness craze hadn’t hit the NHL yet when Marleau entered it. The players were in better shape than some previous generations, but the offseason was used more for healing one’s body than honing it.
“It was more of a tough-guy sport,” Marleau said. “Guys would get to training camp and then they’d get in shape. But organizations started to see that they could get ahead of the curve by getting their guys in shape.”
The Sharks were one such organization. Friesen recalled then-general manager Dean Lombardi ushering in aspects of the San Francisco 49ers’ training regimen for the Sharks.
“I went back to San Jose sometime later, and Patty was an absolute fitness freak,” said Friesen. “That Gary Roberts mentality. I was blown away. People change and grow and evolve. I think that’s why he broke the record.”
As the years have gone by, Marleau has remained curious and open-minded about training innovations — the ones that go beyond the ice bath.
“He’s always been well-prepared. He’s always worked hard. Always asked questions about how to get better,” Ricci said. “He’s always doing what needs to be done to get better. He’s even changed his body over the last few years to what he feels is better for him. And it ain’t easy to change a body. Take it from an old guy that put on weight.”
Marleau said that as he’s gotten older, he’s tried to cut weight. He played much of his career at 220 pounds and is now at around 215. “Depending on the day,” he said with a smile.
He’s quick to credit his support system with his longevity and health. “I’ve had a lot of great teammates and great friends through the years. Chiropractors, doctors, massage therapists, specialists. You don’t play this long without that kind of help along the way,” he said.
Chief among them is Mike Potenza, the Sharks’ director of strength and conditioning since 2006.
“Patty has been a student of training. He’s invested a lot in training,” Potenza said in an interview with NBC Sports California. “He has some gifts. He’s very humble about those gifts, but he wants to keep them going. He wants to maintain them. He wants to refine and polish them throughout his career. That’s one of the reasons we’ve clicked so well.”
Potenza is symbolic of another catalyst for Marleau’s record-breaking longevity: the San Jose Sharks franchise itself.
‘San Jose’s a loyal place’
This is actually Marleau’s third stint with the Sharks. He played there from 1997 to 2017 before leaving as a free agent for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who offered him the third contractual season that San Jose GM Doug Wilson would not.
He was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes after two seasons in Toronto, as the Leafs sent a first-round pick to Carolina in exchange for it buying out Marleau’s third season. He would sign back in San Jose in October 2019, and he was traded to a contender in the Pittsburgh Penguins for a third-round pick on Feb. 24, 2020. This past offseason, he signed with the Sharks again on a one-year deal.
Guess who’s back
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— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) October 13, 2020
“Obviously, every kid’s dream is to hoist that Stanley Cup, and I’ve been chasing that all this time,” said Marleau, who has appeared in the Stanley Cup Final only once and never raised the chalice. “Every season where it doesn’t happen, it’s a kick in the butt, for sure. Especially on teams that had a really good shot of going a long way.”
While winning that elusive Stanley Cup remained the goal, Marleau admits that the longer he played, the more catching Howe became another goal.
“It’s one of those things where you could see it could be possible if you stay healthy and everything falls into place. But I don’t know if there was an exact point [where] I thought it could be done,” he said, before clarifying. “Probably in the last couple of years, when you start getting within reach, when you’re under a full season in which you can get there.”
Those who played with Marleau think the record became the reason to keep playing.
“You gotta have the drive. I’ve used the analogy of a fireplace with a pilot light. Well, eventually the pilot light goes out,” Boyle said. “He chased the Cup, and obviously that’s been a big reason he’s kept going. I don’t know what he’s saying about this record, but when you’re only 100- or 120-some games away from breaking Gordie Howe’s record, that’s a motivator. It’s an absolutely incredible feat. That’s going to keep the pilot light on for a few more years.”
Damphousse also believed the record was a carrot for Marleau. “I’m sure at some point, when he was 200 games away, it was in his thoughts for sure. You see the top 20, then you see the top 10, and then you see No. 1, and it’s probably his motivation for the next few years to reach that record. It has to be. The motivation needs to come year in and year out. It’s not about the money anymore. It’s about chasing that record,” he said.
But to chase that record, Marleau needed a place to play. So he signed for a third tour with the Sharks in October 2020. “I was hoping that I could come back to San Jose, and it all worked out,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot to give, a lot to offer. If it didn’t work out here in San Jose, I would have tried to go somewhere else. Thankfully, it worked out.”
It’s reasonable to ask whether, given his performance, Marleau would have played 45 games with another team this season. He has four goals and four assists, skating a career-low 13:29 per game on average, over two minutes less than last season. Analytically, he’s played at a sub-replacement level.
“The thing about Patty is that you wondered, every year, when he was going to be done,” Friesen said. “As soon as his legs slowed down, as soon as anything stops working for him, they’d just bring in new legs and new talent. GMs are just waiting to move that revolving door and say this year’s done. They’re sick of hearing your name. Those seats run out quick. A blink of an eye and it’s over. But Patty … he’ll probably play another year.”
That’s because the bond between Marleau and the Sharks is so strong. He’s now played 1,596 career games in black and teal.
“San Jose’s a loyal place,” Friesen said. “It’s always been that way. That’s another variable: that you need an organization that believes in you. Doug Wilson believed in Patty early on, even when he was behind the scenes as just a Larry Robinson-type mentor, before he became a GM. He fell in love with Patty. Most GMs have guys that just steal their hearts. He came in when Patty was drafted, became the GM, and that was kinda his hockey son.”
Boyle agreed that the Sharks organization, and that stability, is a major factor in Marleau breaking the record.
“You have to have a guy behind the bench that believes in you, and you have to have that guy up in the stands that believes in you,” Boyle said. “I know what that’s like when you don’t have coaches that believe in you. Patty, thankfully, has earned the right but had people that believed in him, too. That’s a big part of it. You can be a great skater. You can be in good shape. You can be a great player. But if the coach or the GM doesn’t believe in you, you’re going to be a healthy scratch, you’re going to be out of the league.
“That can suck the life out of you, when you’re in a place that’s a little more difficult than San Jose has been for Patty.”
Meeting, and beating, Gordie
There’s a sign in Aneroid, Saskatchewan, that proudly states the small town is “home of Patrick Marleau.” More to the point, it’s the location of the 1,600-acre farm where Marleau grew up.
“For me, growing up in Saskatchewan, one of the first things you do is look to see which players from Saskatchewan are in the NHL. Gordie comes to the top of that list,” Marleau said. “It gives you hope that it would be me one day playing in the NHL, because other guys came from small farming communities and played in the NHL.”
And in Howe’s case, played more than anyone in NHL history — until Marleau came along.
Marleau said he met Howe on a few occasions. His favorite interaction came at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal. Marleau was playing mini-sticks with his son, Landon, when Howe rounded the corner of the hallway. “Gordie grabbed the stick out of my hand and started playing with my son,” Marleau said. “He took some time out of his day to make my son’s day. I didn’t get a picture of it because I didn’t have my phone with me. But I’ll never forget that image.”
Nor will many forget the image of Marleau surpassing Howe in Game No. 1,768 on Monday night in Vegas.
When any record from a bygone era is broken, there will be those cavorting for caveats. It took Howe 26 seasons to set the record, playing until he was 51 years old. For the first 21 seasons of his NHL career, the maximum number of regular-season games he could play was 70. That increased to 74 in 1967-68, Howe’s 22nd season in the league, and then up to 76 games after that. Outside of seasons shorted for a work stoppage and the COVID-19 pandemic, Marleau had the chance to play 82 games every season.
And what would this record look like had Howe not left for the World Hockey Association from 1973 to ’79, playing 419 games from the ages of 45 to 50?
Then again, there are caveats for Marleau. From 1946 to ’67, Howe played in a six-team league. Marleau had exponentially more demanding travel.
“He lost a year and a half to lockouts, too,” said Boyle. “There’s 120 games right there that we lost. He’d be looking at 2,000 games right now. It’s absolutely incredible.”
That’s a word — “incredible” — that gets thrown around a lot about this accomplishment and about Patrick Marleau himself. Friesen, for one, couldn’t believe the magnitude of the achievement.
“Honest to god, when San Jose reached out and said they were doing a video tribute for Patty, I thought that he was breaking the all-time Sharks record for games. And I was like, ‘Holy s—, he doesn’t have that record by now? How many games did Owen Nolan play?'” Friesen said with a laugh. “And then I realized it was the NHL all-time record, and I still can’t believe it. I’m just blown away.”
Boyle said he’s still coming to grips with the notion that he played with someone who broke a Gordie Howe career record.
“It’s insane. I don’t know, man, there’s a lot of records that blow my mind, but this one is right up there. I know the game. I know how hard it is to play that long,” he said.
For the current Sharks, it’s been a moment to cherish in a season that’s been more frustrating than rewarding.
“We’re witnessing history here,” Boughner said. “Everybody is a little bit in awe. Being a part of this — whether you’re a coach, a teammate or a trainer — it’s just a really special time for the game.
“It’s his job, and he treats it as a job. If it’s a 7:30 game, he’s there at, like, 3:30. He has the same things he does every day. He sets a great example. There’s a reason he’s been around for so long. It’s his passion and love for the game, but the way he carries himself as a pro, there’s not a lot of guys like that. That’s what makes him so special, and that’s why he’s hung around to break this record.”
It may also be why Patrick Marleau hangs around beyond this season in San Jose. “We’ll see; I don’t know,” he said. “I’d like to keep playing as long as I can, as long as my family keeps supporting me.”
Better start chilling that ice bath, just in case.