Patrick Marleau persevered.
That’s a strange sentence to write about a No. 2 overall draft pick who, in his career, became synonymous with a franchise, won Olympic gold medals on two of the greatest teams ever assembled and broke one of Gordie Howe’s most hallowed records Monday night.
But it’s nonetheless true.
Marleau is a fitting custodian of the NHL’s all-time games played mark -- 1,768 and counting -- because the Sharks icon managed to climb over all the hurdles he has encountered in his career.
The Sharks drafted Marleau as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, and he debuted with San Jose just 16 days after his 18th birthday. He struggled in the first third of his rookie season, scoring just seven points in 24 games. Then Marleau steadily improved over down the stretch in 1996-97, scoring 25 points in the final 50 games of his first NHL season.
That set the tone for the rest of his career.
Marleau scored 45, 40, 52, 44, 57 and 57 points over his next six seasons. He earned the captaincy as a 24-year-old, months before the Sharks made the leap from plucky underdogs to contenders by appearing in the franchise’s first conference final in 2004.
After the 2004-05 lockout, Marleau found another gear, scoring at least 30 goals in all but one 82-game season between ‘05-06 and ‘13-14. Only Alex Ovechkin had more 30-goal seasons during that time, and Marleau also won two Olympic gold medals with Canada in that stretch.
Yet Marleau, and longtime teammate Joe Thornton, bore the brunt of criticism as the Sharks failed to win a Stanley Cup. Never mind that, during his previously mentioned peak, Marleau ranked fifth in playoff goals (41) and was tied with Clutch Performer Jonathan Toews for game-winning goals (10) over that stretch. It didn't matter that the Sharks' secondary scoring and goaltending consistently dried up: Marleau was hit with the “choker” label, paying the price by losing his captaincy in 2009 and an alternate captaincy in 2015.
But Marleau persevered.
After losing his captaincy the previous spring, Marleau scored a career-high 44 goals in 2009-10. He also scored the series-clinching goal in a gentleman’s sweep of the Detroit Red Wings in 2010, vanquishing his and San Jose’s playoff demons in the process.
When former teammate Jeremy Roenick called Marleau “gutless” for his playoff performance against the Red Wings the following year, Marleau busted a seven-game goal-scoring drought with the series decider in Game 7.
After indicating he would accept a trade to three teams in 2015-16, Marleau tallied two assists in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference final as San Jose clinched its first trip to a Cup Final. He scored San Jose's second-ever goal in the Final -- his first, and a game-tying tally -- in his first game on hockey's biggest stage.
With the Sharks missing Thornton and Logan Couture hobbled by a broken jaw in the 2017 playoffs, Marleau scored in three consecutive postseason games against the upstart Edmonton Oilers. Those goals, keeping the short-handed Sharks afloat and coming after a regular season in which he scored 27 goals and reached 500 for his career, would’ve been fitting send-offs for a player who received far too much blame and never enough credit in San Jose.
But Marleau got another turn -- and then another -- in teal.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs bought out Marleau’s contract after the 2018-19 season, Marleau gave himself a chance to break Howe’s record after rejoining the Sharks. Marleau had 20 points in 58 regular-season games with the Sharks last season, and 22 in 66 including his short stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, ultimately earning a contract for the season in which he would break Howe’s record.
With just eight points in 44 games this season, Marleau clearly isn’t the player he once was. But lockouts in 2004-05 and 2012 robbed the Sharks legend of the chance to surpass Howe much sooner.
Marleau never played fewer than 74 games during a season that wasn’t disrupted by a lockout or a global pandemic, yet he “missed” 132 games because of the aforementioned lockouts and COVID-19’s disruption of last season.
Had Marleau played in each of those games, he’d be on track to become the only player with 1,900 NHL games to his name at this point. But in a career in which his accomplishments didn’t come easily, the 41-year-old saved his hardest for last.
Marleau’s new record is a fitting testament to his journey. After all that he has been through, setting it in a Sharks sweater makes Marleau’s milestone all the sweeter.