Marleaus debut remembered on cusp of breaking NHL games-played record

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“I think the biggest thing that always sticks out is, I think Bryan Marchment tried to take a good hit on me my first shift,” the San Jose Sharks forward said. “Luckily, I think I might have tripped or something, fell and got out of the way. 

“That was probably the biggest thing.”

Marleau admitted he averted disaster by narrowly avoiding the attempted check by the hard-hitting Edmonton Oilers defenseman. It’s that type of durability that has the veteran on the cusp of making NHL history by playing the most games of any player.

The 41-year-old has played 1,767 games, tying the record held by Hall of Famer Gordie Howe. He can move into first all-time when the Sharks visit the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday (10 p.m. ET; NHLN, ATTSN-RM, NBCSCA, NHL.TV), 6,108 days after he made his NHL debut for the Sharks against the Oilers on Oct. 1, 1997.

“That’s crazy, all those days, all those games” said former goalie Curtis Joseph, who stopped 36 of 39 Sharks shots in the Oilers 5-3 road win at SAP Center that night. “I mean, to be able to step past big attempted hits like (Marchment’s) over all these years, to be able to avoid injury, not get sick, stay healthy, that’s amazing.”

Video: Patrick Marleau plays his first game in the NHL

Marleau has come a long way since the Sharks selected him No. 2 in the 1997 NHL Draft. Because his birthday is Sept. 15, he was still a wide-eyed kid of 17 when training camp started earlier that month.

“Obviously a lot has happened to him since that first game, that first camp,” Kelly Hrudey, then a goalie with the Sharks, said. “But Patty’s the same humble person. To him, it’s never been about Patty, it’s always been about the team.”

Marleau has scored 1,196 points (566 goals, 630 assists) in 1,767 NHL games for the Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. He has scored 127 points (72 goals, 55 assists) in 195 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

With his historic night approaching, NHL.com spoke to Marleau, Marchment, Joseph, Hrudey and others about his first NHL game.

The Sharks were 27-47-8 in 1996-97 and in rebuild mode when they selected Marleau one pick after the Boston Bruins took forward Joe Thornton No. 1 in the 1997 NHL Draft. San Jose general manager Dean Lombardi looked to veterans like Hrudey and Tony Granato to watch out for the farm boy from Aneroid, Saskatchewan, who had scored 125 points (51 goals, 74 assists) with Seattle of the Western Hockey League in 1996-97.

Granato: “I remember Dean coming up to me and some of the older players and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this young kid, he comes from a small Canadian town, he’s in our future, we love we were able to draft him, he’s special and going to mean a lot for this organization so help him out.’ So, we knew all about him when he came to camp. So humble. So talented. He didn’t disappoint.”

Hrudey: “We did a heck of a job of looking out for him. Look what he’s gone on to accomplish. (Laughing). I mean it though. He came to live with my family and it was a pleasure. Quiet and humble.”

Marleau: “That was huge for me, to have a veteran and a family to become part of. They brought me into their home. I lived in the guest house but always came in for dinners and lunches, and helped Kelly and Donna put Christmas gifts together for their kids. Just to be able to bounce things off Kelly. There were a lot of things I learned from him not only on the ice but off the ice, things like contracts and how things work … I can never thank him and his family enough for what they did for me that first year.”

Randy Hahn (Sharks broadcaster): “Darryl Sutter had just been hired as coach and he was a no-nonsense guy. His mentors were Iron Mike Keenan and, to that end, Scotty Bowman. There was a school of thought that this 17-year-old kid would definitely be returned to junior. But Darryl obviously saw something in him.”

Darryl Sutter: “He was just a boy from a small town that wanted to play in the NHL and was trying to figure it all out. 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.”

Marleau: “Learning things (like backchecking) early on with Darryl helped me have such a long career and play this many games. 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.”

Granato: “What I remember even more than his first game is him scoring in an exhibition game just days before he turned 18. I think it was in San Diego. Here’s a 17-year-old kid scoring like that and we’re going: ‘Wow, this kid’s special.'”

Hrudey: “A couple of things stuck with me early on about Patty. First, his quick release. Secondly his skating. I remember we finished a drill in camp and I skated to the bench to get some water. Tony was there. We’d been teammates with the (Los Angeles) Kings. He looked at me and said, ‘Oh my gosh I can’t belief how quick he is.’ Those are the hockey things. The other thing that drew me to Patty is that he reminded me of me when I started with the (New York) Islanders. I was shy and I listened but I didn’t say much, just like Patty. That’s kind of why I asked him to live with our family.”

Granato: “He was what we needed. We needed not just skill but an injection of personality and something to get that franchise going in San Jose. And so there was a lot of pressure on him from that standpoint. But he never showed it.”

Hahn: “Patty didn’t have an ego. But even back then, he had that subtle grin, a sign of self-confidence. It was almost as if he knew he could succeed no matter what anyone else thought.”

Pat Brisson (NHL agent): “He’s the same way today. I wasn’t representing him at the time, but I knew he was a gifted player. But getting to know him as a person now, the fact that he’s never changed, says a lot about Patty.”

When game night arrived, Marleau received a rousing ovation when he was introduced during the pre-game ceremony. He played 12:15 in his NHL debut, saw time on the power play and had three shots on goal. All the while, proud parents Denis and Jeannette were back in Aneroid working on the farm.

Marleau: “I didn’t have anyone there. They flew in for the traditional couple of games that the team flies parents in for on your first contract. So, I was by myself. But I knew they were all watching in support so that was huge for me.”

Hrudey: “Patty was quiet and shy so if he was nervous for that first game he didn’t share it with me. Like I said, we veterans were protective of Patty. There was no intimidation from us. There were no ridiculous things like hazing or making a young player feel inadequate. We were there to nurture him. Again, given what he’s about to accomplish I would say it worked.”

Granato: “Was the stage too big for him? No way. Even in that first camp, that first game, he’d look at you with a sparkle in his eye and his little smirk like he was saying, ‘I got this.’ It’s never changed.”

Marchment: “He says he luckily avoid a hit from me on his first shift? He’s being too kind. What I remember from that game is he bulldozed me. I remember going back to the bench thinking: ‘Who the heck is this kid?’ He was a man-child. It was a clean hit, but he jolted me hard. It was solid contact along the bench. That was a long time ago, but I remember the hit. I just didn’t remember it was his first game in the National Hockey League.”

Joseph: “Playing against him, you noticed what an effortless skater he was. He’d take one stride where others would have to take two or three. You always needed to know where he was because he’d go from Point A to Point B in an instant.”

Marchment: “Like most of us at 17 or 18, our faces made us look like the kids we were. But along with his skill, Patty’s body was already developed. He could dish it out.”

Granato: “Looking back to that time, that game, and what he’s accomplished is amazing. Other than Wayne Gretzky, who I played with in LA, you didn’t really see anyone challenging Gordie’s records. And now Patty is about to break one of them. What that says, is that Patty is about to enter hockey immortality. And he’s well deserving of it.”

Marchment is now a scout with the Sharks. Granato is the coach for the University of Wisconsin. Hrudey is an analyst with Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada. Hahn has been the play-by-play voice of the Sharks since 1991-92. Sutter is the coach of the Calgary Flames. Joseph is an ambassador with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brisson has served as Marleau’s agent for the past several seasons.

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