Thank You, Hockey

Clara Mokri/The Players’ Tribune

I was three years old when my dad, Denis, took me to skate at the local rink in Aneroid for the first time. He said I got halfway around the rink, turned around and headed back to him, handing him the chair he’d given me for balance. “I don’t want this,” was all I said, and then I turned and went back out on the ice.  

I fell in love with being out there at a young age. Hockey has always brought me a happiness I can’t put into words. It’s the smell of the rink, the laughs with my teammates, the competition, the thrill of victory, and yes, even the sorrow of defeat that fuels the fire to go out and try again. I was lucky to find my passion when I did, from that very first lap. 

Soon, I was skating each and every chance I got. Sometimes, that was on the dugout of our family’s farm. There was a watering hole that the cattle used to drink from, and in the winter it would freeze. So, we would make a hole for the cows to get what they needed, and the rest would be frozen and waiting for my brother and I to play our own version of an NHL game. I idolized Mario Lemieux growing up, so I would pretend to be him winning Stanley Cups for the Penguins. Right there, during those brutal Saskatchewan winters, my dream was born. I’d come home in tears with frozen feet, and my mom would slowly warm me back up. Those core memories, all centered on hockey and family, make up so much of who I am. They are still the most important things in my life today. 

Patrick Marleau | San Jose Sharks | Thank You, Hockey | The Players' Tribune
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Growing up on our family’s 1,600-acre farm meant a lot of hard work, sacrifice and an appreciation for the simple things in life. My mom and dad worked tirelessly for me and my older sister and brother, Denise and Richard. Chores were a way of life for us, teaching us more than just the importance of getting a job done. Those early mornings feeding cattle, shoveling grain or bailing hay taught me a work ethic that defined my career. But I also have to give credit to my brother and sister.

When I began to travel more for hockey, it was the two of them who had to pick up the slack for my share of the chores. I never heard either of them complain though. And my mom and dad must have spent hundreds — maybe thousands — of hours driving me to games, practices or tournaments. The sacrifices that everyone in my family made for me allowed me to follow my dreams. My career doesn’t happen without each of them. Dad had an opportunity to play for the Weyburn Red Wings, a junior team in Saskatchewan. But my grandpa had been adamant that he stay and help out on the farm at home, so Dad’s dream ended there. He made sure that mine did not. It was truly a collective sacrifice for me.  

When I was just 14, my parents allowed me to move to Swift Current with my grandma.  The hockey was better there, so after Mom had told me to stay out of trouble or I would be coming back home, I packed my bags, my favorite VHS Lemieux tape and left.  As thankful as I was then, being a parent now, I am even more thankful. I didn’t realize how hard and heartbreaking it must have been for them to let me go so young.

Just two years after that, I was on my way to Seattle to play for the Thunderbirds.  That’s where I met some of my best friends, who I still have today. For all the toughness, fighting and competition that defines hockey, it is also defined by a brotherhood that I can honestly say is the highlight of my lifetime on skates. I am a lucky man for a whole lot of reasons, and my friendships from hockey is definitely one of them. Seattle is where I began to realize, Hey, maybe I could actually make it to the NHL. Maybe this hockey thing could be my job. 

As the ’97 draft was coming up, my parents had started to get calls from agents wanting to represent me. Some came up to the farm, others just phone calls. But one agent stood out among all of the others. He told me and my parents, “Look, I would love to represent Patrick. But he doesn’t need to worry about any of this yet. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing, playing great hockey.” Guess who we chose? Don Baizley made it clear that playing hockey comes first, not the business of it. I respected that. I respected him, and he became like a second father to me. Don would call throughout the season to check in, and he gave me advice that I still use to this day. He also held me accountable when necessary and was a trusted confidant. Sadly, Don passed away in 2013, but I will forever owe so much of my career to him. I can’t overstate the influence he had on my life, or the lives of his other clients. His legacy lives on through us all. 

The night before the draft in Pittsburgh, Don was walking my family and I through the process and likely scenarios. Then I met up with Dean Lombardi and the Sharks’ scouts. They were complimentary, but left the meeting with, “Well, if we don’t trade our pick, we’ll take you at 2.” I get asked a lot if I knew San Jose was going to take me that day, and the truth is I did not. I knew if they didn’t trade their pick, I would be heading to California, but they could have traded it away at the last second if they’d wanted. It was not until I heard my name that I knew. It kind of seems like a dream looking back now. All those hours at the rink, in the gym, schoolwork on the bus rides, bumps and bruises all leading to that moment. Little did I know, that was just the beginning. 

I couldn’t have told you much about San Jose before the summer of ’97. I knew it was in California, but that’s a big state. Was it by the beach? A desert city? All I knew was that there was a newish team there that wanted me, and I needed to bring it. I showed up about a month before camp, checked into a hotel and got to work. About a month or so into my rookie season, I was finally told I could get a place to live. Kelly Hrudey, who was playing there at the time, had gone into Dean’s office and said he and his wife, Donna, had a guest house that they wanted me to stay in. My parents were thankful, the team was more than okay with it, and I was excited to not have to go home to an empty apartment each day. Kelly and I would eat after games together in his kitchen and stay up too late laughing and telling stories. We put together Barbie houses and other toys the night before Christmas, giving me a glimpse of the life that my own would soon mimic (maybe more hockey nets than Barbie houses next to our fireplace, though). That rookie season might mean a little more than all of the others, because it was the realization of a dream.

Patrick Marleau | San Jose Sharks | Thank You, Hockey | The Players' Tribune
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I learned so much from so many of those guys I played with my first years in the league. Naming them all would be like a roll call, but there are a few guys that stand out: Kelly, obviously, Tony Granato, Murray Craven, Gary Suter, Mike Ricci and Adam Graves. 

Each of those guys had a part to play in my early career — I would take bits and pieces of their game or their advice and put them to work. I wish I could name every guy I have played alongside, but that would make this much too long. The reality is that we learn from everyone we come across in life. We learn from some more than others, but our experiences shape who we are. I remember when we were on the road those first couple of years, when I wasn’t old enough to legally go out after a game. I would hang out and watch movies in the hotel room, play video games, call friends or my girlfriend from the hotel phone … or, if we were in Canada, I would join the team because I was of age there. Those memories — off of the ice, but with the guys I battled with on it — are the ones that make me smile the most when I look back on the last 25-plus years.  

Playing in San Jose was the stuff of fairy tales. It was a new team, a beautiful city in California (where the weather was just a smidge nicer than the cold, bitter Canadian air I was used to). I got to play in one of the newest rinks in the league, with loud, passionate fans cheering us on. The horn that goes off when a home-team goal is scored in SAP Center is music to my ears. Our teams were gritty, hardworking, and never stopped fighting until the final buzzer. Building those first years of history for the Sharks was a responsibility I didn’t take lightly, or for granted. I hope the city, the organization and the fans can be proud of what we accomplished then. 

There are so many moments throughout my career that I can look back on and say were among the top. But, of course, there are always a few that will stand out. Like my first goal, against Nikolai Khabibulin, or my first playoff series. There’s my first shift, in my first game, when Bryan Marchment came right for me and somehow I avoided that hit…. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Bryan later introduced me to my wife, so all is forgiven. 

In 2010, I was named to Team Canada for the Olympics in Vancouver. After we won gold, my wife and I were in a cab trying to go to dinner with Brenden Morrow and his wife. We were at a dead stop. The streets were full of fans, singing the anthem, waving the flag, still cheering the OT golden goal Crosby had scored just an hour before. And there I was, witnessing a moment in history, having been a part of that team, seeing the joy and unity it had brought to fans from every background. That part of sport is awe-inspiring to me. That little boy on his dugout with frozen feet would never have believed the life he would get to live. 

In 2016, I finally got to play in the Stanley Cup finals. I’m not gonna lie: when I think about how close we were to winning, it still stings. But I know that we all left it all out on the ice that year. Again, I got to witness so many people from different backgrounds all coming together to cheer us on, decked out in teal and face paint, making the Tank the loudest I have ever heard it. That new team — the city I couldn’t find on a map — was a hockey town if I’d ever seen one. To see how far the team and city had come in the 19 years since I had been drafted made me proud for all of us.

Patrick Marleau | San Jose Sharks | Thank You, Hockey | The Players' Tribune
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One of the toughest decisions professionally I ever made was to try something new in the summer of 2017. I moved my family to the center of the hockey universe and put on a Maple Leafs sweater. Playing for the Leafs was surreal. A real “pinch me” moment. My family loved it there, and our boys still want to go back and play on our backyard rink. That opportunity I gave them was like being a kid again. But I was now the older veteran on a team full of crazy-talented young kids. Kids like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Kids that are closer to the age of my own sons than to me. Watching them and their love of the game made me fall in love with hockey all over again. I have no doubt that those guys will win a Cup one day, and when they do, I know they’ll remember all those mini-stick battles in the basement. 

It’s surreal to me that the Penguins — the team I grew up pretending to play for, wearing their T-shirts for many, many school photos, where my idol played — gave me an opportunity to play in Pittsburgh for real. Unfortunately, it was during the Covid shutdown, and the team didn’t do as well as we all had expected or hoped, but I will always, always be so grateful that I got to live out another dream. That jersey still hangs in my closet and I can’t help but wonder why God has been so generous to me and allowed me to live this life.  

As with most professional athletes, I feel like I could play forever. I wish I could play forever — my boys would like to see me play for the next 10 years if they could. But there comes a time when I have to be grateful and thankful for the time I have been given, and to make way for the next generation to make their own dreams come true. I won’t lie: walking into this next phase of life hasn’t been easy. I have lived and breathed hockey for almost 40 years. I have had to figure out who I am again. But I also get to still go to the rink almost every day, only this time it is with my own sons. This time I get to sacrifice for someone else, to help them reach their own full potential. I have gone to hockey tournaments for all of my boys, I’ve got to help coach, I have read bedtime stories, helped with homework, and finally gotten to be a part of my own family’s life on a daily basis — not just between my own games or road trips. I know I can’t make up for lost time with them, but I can be present and enjoy the last days of them at home before they each go chase down their own dreams. 

Today, I announce my retirement from hockey. 

It’s bittersweet for sure, but I have so much to look forward to. Who knows what the world has in store for me. If you would have told that kid on the frozen pond that he would break a games-played record held by none other than Gordie Howe, he would have thought you were crazy. It was never something I aimed for; it was just me loving this game so much that I never, ever wanted to hang up my skates. I am beyond lucky to have had the career I had, but I did not get here by myself.  

To Mom and Dad, your sacrifice and love gave me the opportunities that got me where I am today. You always believed in me and cheered me on. I owe you two a gratitude I can’t put into words. I love you both so much. Thank you for everything you have done for me. 

Richard and Denise, thank you for your support both during my career and before. Whether it was doing my chores or driving hours to watch my games in the middle of winter. I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated having you both in my life. 

I can’t stress this one enough: thank you to the people of San Jose and the Sharks franchise. I came to San Jose as a 17-year-old boy. I had big dreams and you showed faith in me from day one. Thank you for allowing me to put that jersey on, year after year, decade after decade. I hope I have left a history that you and the city can be proud of. There are so many people that I would like to personally thank, but I need to quickly name just a few: Mike Aldrich, Ray Tufts and Wes Howard have been there since the beginning. Those guys are like family to me. 

I came to San Jose as a 17-year-old boy. I had big dreams and you showed faith in me from Day One. Thank you for allowing me to put that jersey on, year after year, decade after decade.

Patrick Marleau

To Don, your presence is missed but your legacy lives on in everything I do. I miss you.

Pat Brisson, your guidance the last few years has been appreciated and so helpful. 

To each of my teammates during my career, thank you for being a part of my dream come true. Each of you made this ride worthwhile. I am privileged to have been a part of so many great locker rooms and amazing teams.  

I need to mention one teammate in particular. Jumbo and I entered this league together, and I was fortunate enough to be able to share the ice with him for more than half of my career. Your positive outlook has always been infectious. Thank you for all those great passes, Joe. You’re not just a teammate, but a lifelong friend. 

To Toronto and Pittsburgh, thank you for the opportunities I had with each of you, your organizations, and cities. I still wake up thinking, did I really get to wear that iconic leaf on my chest? Did I really get to put that Penguins jersey on? I did, and I am forever grateful and humbled. 

Landon, Brody, Jagger and Caleb, everything I do is for you four boys. You are all growing and becoming incredible young men, and you each make me so proud every day. I hope you work hard, be respectful, be kind, help others and follow your dreams. When you were born, I remember thinking, I hope I can play long enough so you’ll remember watching my games. I pray that I have made you proud. I am excited to continue to watch you boys live your dreams out, and I will be alongside cheering you on and supporting each of you every step of the way.  

Most of all, I am thankful to my wife, Christina. I couldn’t have done any of this without her. There’s nothing I could say here to truly show my appreciation for her. She is a superhero. The best mom in the world. I am a lucky man to have had her by my side throughout this journey. I would not be the man I am today without her, her honest advice or late-night therapy talks after a game.  

And lastly…. 

Thank you, hockey. 

For the lessons. The laughs. The tears. You let me live out my dreams.