Patrick Marleau passed Gordie Howe for most NHL games played Monday, and though his friend Joe Thornton said he’s thrilled for the San Jose Sharks forward, he has no aspirations to challenge the record himself.
“I am strictly one day at a time and I’ve been in that mode for five years,” the Toronto Maple Leafs forward told NHL.com this weekend, breaking into laughter. “It’s a good mindset to have.
“Having said that, it’s really hard to believe ‘Patty’ is going to pass Gordie Howe. It’s really cool.”
Marleau played No. 1,768 to pass Howe when the Sharks visited the Vegas Golden Knights.
Thornton is second among active players and sixth in NHL history with 1,669 regular-season games, 99 behind Marleau, and said the two have been in regular contact during Marleau’s march toward hockey history.
“Whenever he passes someone in games played, I’ve always made it a point to fire him a text,” Thornton said. “He’s going to be one of those guys throughout my lifetime that I’m always going to check on to make sure everything’s going good. That’s a good friend to have.
“Patty and I met each other when we played on the Team Canada Under-18 team. I think I was 17 at the time. So we’ve had a friendship for 24 years. There are not too many friendships that have lasted that long. It makes this record even more special.”
Months after representing Canada together, the forwards were the top two picks in the 1997 NHL Draft, Thornton selected No. 1 by the Boston Bruins, and Marleau No. 2 by the Sharks.
Eight years later, they became teammates again, this time in the NHL. On Nov. 30, 2005, the Bruins traded Thornton to the Sharks in a four-player deal that sent defenseman Brad Stuart and forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau to Boston.
For the next 15 years, they were the faces of the Sharks. Over that time, Thornton got an inside look at the qualities that have allowed Marleau to maintain such remarkable durability.
“He skates so well,” Thornton said. “Physically, he’s been one of the top three players on every team he’s ever been on in terms of strength. He’s a powerful, powerful guy.
“When you see pictures of Gordie even at 50, you could see he was just a powerful man. You see Patty Marleau and he’s built too. He’s very durable because he’s so strong, very flexible, but ultimately he puts in the work during the offseason. He doesn’t take a day off and he’s always trying to get better. He never takes a second off.”
Marleau left the Sharks when he signed with the Maple Leafs on July 2, 2017. He was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes on June 22, 2019, and had the final season of his contact bought out without playing a game for them.
Marleau returned to San Jose to play 58 games last season before being traded to Pittsburgh on Feb. 24, 2020. He became an unrestricted free agent and signed a one-year contract with the Sharks on Oct. 13.
Thornton’s run with the Sharks ended when he signed a one-year contract with the Maple Leafs on Oct. 18. His 1,104 games and 1,055 points rank second in San Jose history behind Marleau’s 1,596 and 1,110, and his 804 assists are first.
“Even with playing with Patty all those years, it’s still amazing to think about what he’s doing,” Thornton said. “It’s one of those things that when you hear about the games played by Gordie Howe, you think it’s one of those things that’s untouchable. He was part of the League for so long. You wouldn’t have dreamed of anybody touching that milestone. So when you’re beating one of Mr. Hockey’s records, it’s impressive.
“I care deeply for Patty. He has the biggest heart and an infectious laugh when he laughs. He has a great sense of humor.
“You just hope that you’re allowed to have a friend like Patrick Marleau because it really is special.”