Patrick Marleau grew up chasing cattle on a farm in Aneroid, Sask., where wheat fields dance on the wind-swept prairie.
Every winter, he skated in unforgiving temperatures that made his fingers and toes go numb. His family clocked countless knuckle-gripping kilometres on slick back roads driving the boy to play hockey in nearby towns.
All the while, young Patrick dreamed of becoming the next Saskatchewan product to make it to the National Hockey League.
On Saturday in Minnesota, the San Jose Sharks forward is set to tie the record for the most career NHL games played (1,767) held by the most legendary of all Saskatchewan hockey players, the late Gordie Howe (who also logged 419 games in the WHA.)
Barring anything unforeseen, Marleau can break Mr. Hockey’s NHL record Monday in Las Vegas.
“For me growing up in Saskatchewan, one of the first things you do is look to see what players from Saskatchewan are in the NHL – and obviously Gordie comes to the top of that list,” says Marleau, 41. “And Bryan Trottier and Mark Lamb and players like that who grew up in my area who made it. It gives you hope.”
He says he thought: “Maybe that could be me one day playing in the NHL since these other guys before me did it coming from small farming communities in Saskatchewan.”
WATCH | 9 facts about Patrick Marleau:
Marleau broke into the NHL at age 18 with the Sharks on a veteran-laden team featuring the likes of Bernie Nicholls, Kelly Hrudey and Owen Nolan. In that first training camp, he loved the new-found freedom of having the money from his NHL per-diem to go shopping at the mall.
His first head coach was hard-scrabble Darryl Sutter, of Viking, Alta.
“He was just a boy from a small town that wanted to play in the NHL and was trying to figure it all out,” Sutter says of Marleau. “You didn’t have to do much with Patty other than to tell him to work hard. And that’s basically what he did was work hard. It’s taken him a long way.
“He’s the epitome of a perfect player, when you think about it.”
The swift-skating Marleau credits Sutter for furthering the lessons learned on the farm about work ethic and drilling into him the importance of attention to defensive detail.
Proficient backchecking might not be sexy, but it can add years to an NHL career – as can meticulous attention to nutrition and off-ice fitness.
“Learning those things early on with Darryl helped me have such a long career and play this many games,” says Marleau, who has scored 566 and 1,196 points over 23 years. “When you play against top lines for the majority of your career, you have to be able to hold your own in the defensive zone.”
WATCH | Marleau on verge to pass Howe:
Saskatchewan factory for NHL players
Saskatchewan sports fans take pride in the province’s reputation as a factory for NHL players. Regina sports writer Darrell Davis is not at all surprised to see Marleau, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, eclipse Howe in career games played.
“Saskatchewan produces great, dedicated, rugged hockey players.” says Davis, who co-authored Fire on Ice – Why Saskatchewan Rules the NHL with New York Islanders forward Jordan Eberle.
“When I wrote the book, I kept asking guys like Tiger Williams, Bryan Trottier, Tanner Glass, Chris Kunitz and Ryan Getzlaf about their success. It all came back to that small-town feeling in all the hockey programs. The coaches are volunteers. You know the guy who opens the arena early and floods the ice.
“The community supports them, and they feel the obligation back to thank them and work their hardest.”
At the 2009 NHL all-star game in Montreal, Marleau was playing mini-sticks hockey with his toddler son Landon outside a meal room. Howe, then 80, swept around the corner, grabbed Patrick’s stick and started playing with the little boy.
“I didn’t get any pictures of it,” Marleau says. “But I’ll never get that image out of my head.”
Twelve years later, Marleau cherishes the memory as he gets set to pass a legend.