Growing up in Aneroid, Saskatchewan, Patrick Marleau looked to see which players from his province had made the NHL. At the top of the list was one of the greatest of all time, the one who had played more NHL games than anyone else, Gordie Howe.
“It gives you hope,” he said. “It gives you hope that 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.”
Playing in the NHL is an accomplishment in itself. Out of everyone who has laced up a pair of skates, only 8,100 have appeared in the League in more than a century, starting with its first season in 1917-18. The number is 8,072 including only the regular season.
Marleau is about to reach one of the greatest milestones in the sport considering that, and it’s all the more special because he is passing none other than Mr. Hockey. Marleau is scheduled to tie Howe’s record of 1,767 NHL regular-season games when the San Jose Sharks play at the Minnesota Wild on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; BSN, NBCSCA, NHL.TV) and break it at the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday.
Howe, who was born in Floral, Saskatchewan, and grew up in Saskatoon, died June 10, 2016, at age 88. If he were alive today, he would be there when Marleau broke the record, and if not for the coronavirus pandemic, a member of the Howe family would be there to represent him.
“I know Dad would be there, and he would wholeheartedly be supporting Patrick,” said Howe’s son Mark, a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman himself. “To me, there’s zero doubt about that. That’s just the person he was.”
Howe has led the NHL in regular-season games played for almost 60 years, since he overtook Ted Lindsay on the same day he became the first to play 1,000 games, Nov. 26, 1961.
When Howe retired the first time after the 1970-71 season, he had played 1,687 NHL regular-season games, 300 more than the next-closest player, Alex Delvecchio, and all of them for the Detroit Red Wings. (Marleau also ranks second to Howe on the list for regular-season games with one franchise, but he’s 93 behind at 1,594 for the Sharks.)
At that time, Howe was 43. He had arthritic wrists, and Detroit had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs four out of the previous five seasons. He thought it was time.
But he grew restless in what became a ceremonial front office job with the Red Wings and became energized by the prospect of playing with sons Mark and Marty. He played for Houston and New England of the World Hockey Association from 1973-79 at ages 45-51, adding 419 games that don’t count in the NHL record books.
The WHA wasn’t the NHL, especially in the early days, but it was a top pro league that eventually merged with the NHL. Howe played one more NHL season with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80 while turning 52 that March 31, appearing in all 80 games and scoring 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists).
We can compare and contrast Marleau and Howe in the context of longevity. The NHL played shorter seasons in Howe’s day; Marleau lost games to labor disruptions. Howe played a far more physical style; Marleau has lasted so long at a time when the NHL has become increasingly younger and faster.
“Obviously Patrick Marleau, from scouting him years ago, he was a big, strong, powerful skater, and if you can do that, you can play a long time,” said Mark, a longtime pro scout for the Red Wings. “And he’s stayed healthy.”
We can play the what-if game. What if Howe had never left the NHL the first time? But if not for the chance to play with his sons, would he have come back? Would Marleau hold the record already?
Doesn’t matter. Different players, different eras. Apples and oranges.
What matters most is what Marleau and Howe have in common: Both originally just wanted to go from Saskatchewan to the NHL, and both played so long for the love of it. At 52, Howe didn’t want to quit and was upset when the Whalers decided to move on. At 41, Marleau, in the last season of his contract, wants to keep playing as long as he can.
This is Mark on Gordie: “You grow up, you dream of playing in the NHL, you dream of winning Stanley Cups, and that was his goal every year. He loved to be on the ice. He loved to compete. He loved to play. The records, the Hall of Fame, all the accolades that come with it were just, they were a thing of the past.”
This is Mark on Marleau: “He’s made plenty of money. A lot of guys, I think, nowadays, they’ve made so much money that they just up and quit and they’ve had enough, so he’s driven by the love of the game and not by the money, which is really nice to see.”
Marleau met Gordie at least once. At the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, Marleau was playing ministicks with his son Landon, who was 2 or 3 at the time. Howe came around the corner, grabbed a ministick out of his hand and started playing with Landon.
“I didn’t get any pictures of it,” Marleau said. “I didn’t have my phone on me. We were next to a meal room. But I’ll never get that image out of my head, and I’ll never forget that story.”
Marleau will now grab the torch from Howe. It will be his to hold it high.
“Even though he didn’t always show it on the ice,” Mark said of his dad with a laugh, “he’s always had a lot of respect for all his peers. So, I mean, I’m positive he would be happy for Patrick.”