SAN JOSE, Calif. - He was the baby of the family, five years younger than his sister, Denise, two years younger than his brother, Richard. On Dennis and Jeanette Marleau's 1,600-acre cattle and grain farm in Aneroid, Saskatchewan (population: 75), that made a young Patrick Marleau good for one thing. Shootin' gophers. Being the baby also made Marleau caring, courteous and determined, the three words he chose to describe himself in the San Jose media guide.
"They kind of put you on the spot," Marleau replies sheepishly. "Whatever comes out comes out."
Today, at 23, Marleau is a youthful block in a stately San Jose edifice. The foundation includes 35-year-old Vincent Damphousse, 34-year-old Adam Graves, 33-year-old Bryan Marchment, 32-year-old Teemu Selanne and 31-year-old Mike Ricci with 30-year-old captain Owen Nolan having been traded to the Maple Leafs.
Cut from the mold of powerful Canadian pivots that clubs lust to build around, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Marleau is maturing into the center San Jose envisioned with the second overall pick behind Joe Thornton in 1997.
Marleau began the 1997-98 season two weeks after blowing out 18 candles, making him the youngest player in the NHL. When he lit his first NHL lamp Oct. 19, 1997 at Phoenix, he became the second-youngest player since World War II to score a regular-season goal. Only Chicago's Grant Mulvey holds an edge on Marleau, whose first goal, ironically, came 23 years to the day of Mulvey's. This season, Marleau became the youngest player in NHL history to reach 400 games played.
Today, at 23, he remains as caring and considerate and determined as he is talented, and he is as much the here and now in San Jose as he is the future.
"I think he is going to be one of the best players to ever play this game," says Selanne, who often rides alongside Marleau. "He has all the tools. I mean, who is a better skater than Patrick Marleau? Anywhere. And he's a great kid. He is only going to get better as he gets older. It's hard to believe this is already his sixth year."
"He's on my payroll, I think," Marleau remarks when apprised of these. "That was very nice of him to say that." Caring. Courteous. You see?
Determination produced scintillation at the conclusion of Year No. 5, which ended with Marleau on a tear - 10 goals and six assists in the closing 10 games. He struck for a team-high 11 points in 12 playoff games, treated the San Jose faithful to three game-winners, then retreated to Aneroid to bail some hay. When the curtain lifted on a season that many assumed would witness Marleau emerge as a point-a-game producer, he needed 13 games to cash in for his first goal. What's more, he needed a video review to confirm that he had, indeed, finally scored.
Then, in a 10-game flash, Marleau synthesized a sub-par season into a sublime stretch. Nine goals in 10 games and a 14-point November. Workmanlike consistency gave way to artistry on Dec. 17 when Marleau - whose brilliance often goes unheralded out West - made an epochal statement on the appreciating stage of Le Centre Bell.
Since coming into the NHL as an 18-year-old, Marleau has gradually improved in all facets of his game.
"His goal in Montreal," says Sharks coach Ron Wilson, who until his hiring on Dec. 4 appreciated Marleau's exploits from afar, "has shown what he is capable of doing. That was incredible speed and strength. It was a beautiful goal."
In the penalty box when the play began, Marleau hit the ice in stride as a loose puck squirted to center ice. A left-handed shot, Marleau shifted from first to fifth in a matter of strides, blew by defenseman Craig Rivet and buried a backhander over Jeff Hackett's catching glove.
"Supposedly," says Marleau, not one for braggadocio, "there is a level you can get to where you can surprise yourself when something can happen automatically and you can look back and say, 'Wow.' But there, I think the D-man was just a little tired."
Equally adept at scoring and passing, Marleau is the centerpiece to the Sharks' most dynamic unit and one of the League's shiftiest - Marco Sturm, a German, on the left, Marleau in the middle, and Selanne, a Finn, on the right. Impressive for a young man from Aneroid, where Marleau knew not only every person's name but every person's border collie's name.
"I love playing with both of those guys," Marleau says. "So much speed. So much skill. It's a lot of fun, and our focus is on having fun by working hard and playing hard. The only time we're not having fun is when we're not working hard."
"He helps me a lot," says Sturm, " because I come from far away too. It's not easy. But Patrick was always there. He's one of the greatest guys I've met here."
Sturm (20 goals, 17 assists) and Marleau (22 goals, 26 assists) room together on the road, where the single Marleau's idea of a night out is watching Austin Powers: Goldmember. Again and again and again. At least, Sturm surmises, "he doesn't snore."
Selanne (25 goals, 29 assists) adores Marleau because he is quick and complete and a playmaker. Despite the magnificent lines Selanne helped form - with Alexei Zhamnov and Keith Tkachuk in Winnipeg and Steve Rucchin and Paul Kariya in Anaheim - the big talent (Tkachuk and Kariya) always was out on the opposite wing. Now, Marleau, a center, is just off Selanne's elbow pad. It should be no surprise that Selanne cites his synergy with Marleau as a foremost reason for returning to the Sharks this season despite a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
"Absolutely," he says. "That was right up there. With our speed, Marco, Patty and myself, speed kills. Especially with the new rules. You can't stop speed."
Combined, the three have driven home 67 goals and assisted on 72 this season.
"That was my own unwritten rule - not to break that line up," says Wilson, who replaced Darryl Sutter behind the bench early in the season. "That line was great in the playoffs last year. They've been great since I came onboard."
Wilson knew what Selanne brought, having coached him in Anaheim. Marleau was many things on film, more still in person.
"I didn't know how fast and strong he was," Wilson says. "I didn't know he has the hands he has. I didn't know he saw the ice as well as he does. And you don't know from afar how coachable a young player is. He is a pleasure to coach. That is probably more important than anything."
San Jose coach Ron Wilson didn't realize Marleau's talent level from afar.
Despite the Sharks' underperformance this season, Marleau leaves the vocal leadership to the veterans. That said, Wilson believes Marleau could be captain material someday. To be certain, he will do almost anything on the ice to spark his team.
During a Jan. 4 game vs. Colorado, Marleau sensed the need to energize the Sharks following a 3-1 loss to Dallas two nights earlier - and perhaps give his parents in the HP Pavilion seats something to take home with them. Marleau did the courting in a first-period scuffle with Greg de Vries, engaging in only his third career fight and first since 1999.
"A little jostling," Marleau wrote it off as. "And things ended up in a fight."
"I was yelling, 'Give it to him, give it to him,' " says Selanne. "I was really surprised. He did good. But my wife told me to tell him, 'Don't fight very often.' Nobody wants him to break those hands."
It so often comes back to those hands. But with Marleau, it also comes back to the eyes and the feet and the heart and the head.
"This is a player who is going to dominate this League for 10 years," says Graves, who carpools with Marleau to the rink each night. "Not only does he have the elite physical abilities, but he also has a great work ethic. You combine those two with his size and strength and you have a force to contend with. He is our go-to guy. He does everything for us. Plays defense, sets up plays, scores goals, makes big hits. And I think with that being said, he's only been in the league five years. And he's a great kid. He's brought himself to this level and he will continue to get better and better.
"He is, I think, just scraping the surface. Having the opportunity to play with him and see him develop, make no mistake, it's all him. It's his desire."
Marco: But Patrick was always there. He's one of the greatest guys I've met here.
Teemu (on Patty): I was yelling, 'Give it to him, give it to him,'
Why are you watching them? Why are you cheering them on? So fucking wrong! *weeps*
It should be no surprise that Selanne cites his synergy with Marleau as a foremost reason for returning to the Sharks this season despite a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
Dude, he loves Marco. Get over it.
Ahh, and since I'm talking about the lesbian, I should insert some forgotten Sunny-ness in here. When Sunny turned over the puck in our zone and Patty picked it up, he slashed Patty in the legs and took him down right after Patty passed. So sweetly vicious. *giggle*