Monday, 19 April 2021

Patrick Marleau Day

It's hard to imagine that, back in 1997, Patrick Marleau would be standing on the precipice of a number no one in NHL history had ever recorded before. Tonight, when the Sharks and Golden Knights meet in Las Vegas, Nevada, Patrick Marleau will play one more NHL game than any other player has in the history of the league. It's a pretty remarkable feat considering the durability needed to weather 1768 games, the skill required to remain in the league that long, and the love and passion for the game after everything he's seen in 23 seasons of hockey, but Marleau will put his name in the record books atop a list that very few will ever approach, let alone challenge.

It's amazing to think about everything that's happened since 1997 when Patrick Marleau, an 18 year-old rookie with the San Jose Sharks, played his first NHL game on October 1, 1997 against the Edmonton Oilers in San Jose that the Oilers would wind up winning by a 5-3 score. From major world events to stories that rocked the hockey landscape, Patrick Marleau's presence in the NHL has been a constant that the NHL has welcomed back year after year.

Let's be honest when we speak of this record, though, and point out that Marleau's new record should stand for some time. Joe Thornton is 99 games behind Marleau after tonight's game as the active player who has the second-most games-played while Zdeno Chara is sitting in third-place some 170 games back of Marleau. All three of those players entered the league in 1997, and it's likely that none of them will see many more seasons of action. The player in fourth-place? Eric Staal who trails Marleau by nearly 500 games. I'm not going to say that whatever number at which Marleau finally stops is unbreakable, but it's getting close to that word.

"I am strictly one day at a time and I've been in that mode for five years," Joe Thornton told Mike Zeisberger of this past weekend as he laughed. "It's a good mindset to have. Having said that, it's really hard to believe 'Patty' is going to pass Gordie Howe. It's really cool."

Scratch one name off the list of players who had a shot at overtaking Marleau as Thornton pays some real respect to his long-time friend and teammate, stating, "He's going to be one of those guys throughout my lifetime that I'm always going to check on to make sure everything's going good. That's a good friend to have."

I'll be the first to say that I am doubtful that Marleau will take a shot at breaking Gordie Howe's all-time record for professional games played as Howe also spent six seasons in the World Hockey Association where he added another 419 games to his total. However, Gordie Howe was also a once-in-a-forever kind of players, so seeing Marleau surpass one of the all-time best players to have ever skated on NHL ice is a level of history one rarely gets to witness. For me, I'll be tuned in tonight to take in this moment because I may never witness it again.

To give you an idea of how long Patrick Marleau has been in the league, it would be 11 months before anyone could Google Patrick Marleau as the search engine was unveiled to the world on September 4, 1998. Ties were still a thing in the NHL as the New York Rangers became the first team in NHL history to open a season with four-straight ties in 1997. The Carolina Hurricanes, a team that Marleau would be briefly traded to in 2019, would play their first game on October 1, 1997 as well, losing 4-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But it would be an event two days later - October 3, 1997 - that brings this story full circle.

On that date in hockey history, Gordie Howe, seen to the right, would suit up with the IHL's Detroit Vipers at the age of 69, allowing him to play professional hockey in six decades! Howe would play in just two shifts in the IHL game, but the very appreciative 20,182 hockey fans in the Palace of Auburn Hills showered Howe with an ovation prior to the game and every time he touched the puck. It would be a bittersweet night as the Kansas City Blades won the game in a shootout, but Howe was quick to praise the fans who turned out to see him skate in one final game - one in which he didn't record a point - in his illustrious and amazing career.

"That was beautiful," Howe said after the game. "You always want to be in touch with the fans. The greeting was terrific."

That respect shown by the fans in Michigan that night towards Gordie Howe is the same respect we all should give Patrick Marleau for dazzling us, entertaining us, wow-ing us, and bringing us to our feet for 23 seasons. While Marleau won't be seen as one of the all-time greats in the game for his scoring exploits like Howe was, there's no doubt that Patrick Marleau is Hockey Hall of Fame-bound just as Howe has been enshrined because he's been a part of so many magical hockey moments.

For a couple of kids from rural Saskatchewan who simply loved to play the game, they have certainly seen it all in their times playing this game, and it's pretty amazing to think that Patrick Marleau's run towards breaking Howe's record started just two days before Howe played his final game ever. It's almost like Howe passed him the torch in October that season when it came to longevity and playing this great game.

Congratulations, Patrick Marleau, on setting the new mark for games played in a career tonight, and here's hoping that this season won't be your last in the NHL as you march towards an 1800th game in your career!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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