Let’s set the stage: it’s the sports world in October 1997, and it’s a big deal. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls embarked on what amounted to be the final championship season of that era. In their fifth year in existence, the Florida Marlins bested the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. And at the University of Michigan, a sophomore quarterback by the name of Tom Brady was battling for playing time.
Also on the first day of that October month, the start of an impressive march in history began. But nobody could have predicted what was to come in the next two-plus decades of play.
That day, the San Jose Sharks lost their first game of the season to the Edmonton Oilers 3-5. In the defeat, Patrick Marleau made his National Hockey League debut as an 18-year-old. He was the second overall pick in the draft the previous June, and the Sharks had high hopes for the young man from Saskatchewan.
A long 8,601 days later, Marleau became the NHL’s all-time leader in games played. On April 19, against the Vegas Golden Knights, Marleau — now 41 — appeared in his 1,768th regular-season contest. With that, he eclipsed the record held by late icon Gordie Howe, known to many as “Mr. Hockey.”
Playing a tick under 1,800 NHL games is mind-boggling. The best word I can think of to describe a typical league season is grueling. The 82-game marathon each season is demanding, and the grind is often too much for some of the best, toughest players of all time. Boston certainly does not need to be reminded of that — look no further than Hall-of-Famer Bobby Orr’s career being limited to 657 games.
Despite all the body checks — both given and taken — blocked shots and late-night flights, Marleau was always in the lineup for the next game. In 23 seasons, he missed only 31 games. Since April of 2009, whether with the Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs or Pittsburgh Penguins, Marleau earned his way onto the lineup card for every regular-season matchup. His next appearance will mark his 900th consecutive contest.
While never a superstar, Marleau has been a very productive offensive player, piling up 566 goals, which is 23rd all-time, and 631 assists, which is good for 80th in league history.
Despite the fact he has never hoisted the Stanley Cup, Marleau has corralled 127 points in 195 postseason matchups. Throughout his time in the NHL, he has always found ways to help his team win hockey games. And the respect he has garnered from his peers is obvious, as players, teams and fans lauded his achievement on social media when Marleau broke the record.
Despite the great moment for the sport, some tried to discredit Marleau in one way or another. Steve Simmons, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, fired off multiple tweets downplaying the accomplishment. Simmons tweeted about Howe’s 419 World Hockey Association games not counting in the NHL record book, adding that Marleau “was done two years ago” and has only finished 9th in MVP voting once.
First of all, bringing up Howe’s WHA stats is a weak argument. Wayne Gretzky — and the rest of the hockey world — celebrated his 802nd career goal as the new record. Nobody was concerned with Howe’s WHA goal total that night. “Mr. Hockey” has eye-popping professional stats, no doubt, but that does not change the fact Marleau played in more NHL games.
For his second point, sports history is filled with figures who played well past their primes to grab accolades. Should we take away Peyton Manning’s 2015 Super Bowl because he was not nearly as skilled as he was in years past? Willie Mays put up two straight-down seasons before retiring. Should those 14 home runs not count?
Marleau is not the first great player to reach a milestone past his peak, and he will certainly not be the last. If we started discrediting players who accomplish feats past their pinnacle, nobody would ever pass statistical landmarks again.
Simmons’ last point, comparing Marleau’s Hart Trophy votes to players such as Howe, Gretzky and Orr, is a cheap pot shot — Marleau should be ashamed of himself because he is not one of the three best players to ever play the sport.
Even Sidney Crosby, the greatest player of his generation, looks inferior to many based on that single point. Bringing up Marleau’s lack of Hart votes while he is entering the annals of hockey history is beyond petty.
Honestly, it is great for the sport that a player of Marleau’s stature now has this record. It feels fitting that professional hockey — a game that prides itself on the foundation that toughness and determination often trump raw talent — has a very good player that got in more games than anyone else ever.
It is more impressive for Marleau to have this record because it shows that you do not need to be a legend to get in the lineup consistently. With a sandpaper work ethic and an impeccable attitude, a good player can enter hallowed ground.
For this generation, Marleau is as revered as any player in the league. His opponents respect the professionalism he brings into the locker room and onto the ice. Marleau is living proof that the most important attribute a person can own is reliability and grit. And in the 104-plus seasons of NHL hockey, nobody has been more dependable than Patrick Marleau.