Patrick Marleau can breathe a sigh of relief.
As impossible of an idea as it was in the first place, the road to 1,768 career NHL games — now the most ever contested by a player — only became more uncertain over the past few seasons. Sold by one team needing to create cap space to another that never had the intention of ever putting him in their lineup, then having to wait on the organization that helped him create his legend to bail him out with a contract in free agency, only to have to knock on that door a second time while a global pandemic threatened the idea of NHL games happening at all, what was only within reach due to stubbornness and superhuman longevity suddenly appeared far less attainable.
Yet, the NHL showed Marleau-level persistence — or at least persistence — itself by opening up a schedule for this season. And with the San Jose Sharks showing both its loyalty and lack of intention as a retooling franchise, a roster spot remained open for a 41-year-old left winger and former star who needs a cold tub between periods in order to shock is body back into a prepared state.
Forty-five games into a season that only would feature a maximum of 56, Marleau broke a record many believed would never be matched, dethroning hockey legend Gordie Howe with his 1,768th career game at the highest level Monday night in Vegas — only with a few opportunities, perhaps, to spare.
First things first, this is a tremendous accomplishment for Marleau, and something that should be lauded. It took extraordinary circumstances to reach this point. The amount of things that needed to go right in order for the 23-season veteran to reach heights previously unseen run far deeper than the late-career hurdles he’s had to navigate.
Namely, Marleau hasn’t missed significant time due to injury or illness once in a career which began at 18 years old in 1997, appearing in at least 80 games in 15 seasons. And despite that, he has still needed to appear in 899 consecutive games across parts of the last 13 seasons to eclipse the mark set by Howe, who played the game — a much different game, mind you — through his 50th birthday four decades ago to reach his highest point.
Marleau didn’t miss a single game between the ages of 29 and 41 — an incredible stretch which also happened to include over 100 games played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Naturally though, attrition has taken its toll.
Marleau has produced just 30 points in his last 111 games, and it seems obvious, now, that he simply wouldn’t have the opportunity to take down the record if belonging to a team with true championship, or even postseason, ambitions. The natural ebb and flow of a franchise has fit Marleau’s career perfectly.
Perhaps for that reason, the Sharks are breathing a sigh of relief, too.
Looking ahead, Marleau will have the opportunity over the last few weeks of the season to make an unattainable record even more unlikely to ever be surpassed, but what happens once the Sharks reach the end of this shortened season seems uncertain.
Marleau didn’t seem to tip his hand either way when considering next season and beyond, or whether the other pursuit in the late stages of his career — the Stanley Cup — is something still worth chasing. It’s believed the possibility of another deadline deal was explored this year, but the suitors just weren’t there. The introduction of the Seattle Kraken will dilute the player pool a little next season, therefore mitigating the number of players that will be phased out of the league this summer, but it seems likely that it’s the Sharks or nothing if Marleau is going to forge ahead once more.
In that case, it seems unlikely that Marleau will have another momentous on-ice moment. That is, other than his 900th consecutive game later this week, or the night he finally takes his final ice bath.
It’s for that reason the legacy discussion, and the question of the Hockey Hall of Fame, is the more intriguing subject when continuing to consider the possibilities tied to Marleau’s career, now that it’s officially more robust than any other.
Future enshrinement is, for Marleau, a fascinating debate. How much is this games played record worth for voters? What role does helping cement San Jose as a legitimate hockey town and market help his case? What about the Olympic gold medals, World Cups and world championships — how do they factor in?
Those are important considerations, because based on production and success in NHL competition, Marleau’s numbers may fall short.
This is a player who was never in the conversation as the very best player in the world in a single moment in time. He was never truly in contention for a major award, with ninth being his highest finish in Hart Trophy voting.
Marleau is 50th all time in points, and could jump a few more rungs on the list if his career continues, but his pedestrian 0.676 points per game is outside the top 300, and behind the likes of Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Ales Hemsky.
And he has, of course, never won a Stanley Cup.
There is no doubt where game-worn items (perhaps even those gloves with the horrible grammar) from Monday night’s game in Vegas will end up, but will Marleau follow?
If he does, it seems it will be entirely on the back of the incredible record, and the name he surpassed on Monday night.
I guess that was reason to stick around, wasn’t it?
Nevertheless, debate will continue to surround Marleau.
And of course, he’ll be the subject of more bad, oddly vindictive takes.
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