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Marleau epitomizes what it means to be a captain

by Larry Wigge
The conversation is still fresh in Patrick Marleau's mind ... even if it happened five years ago.

It was one of those long-distance phone calls a father and son have. You know, friendly advice from dad. Son checking in to find out what's happening at home.

It was a couple of months into the 2003-04 season, the San Jose Sharks were rotating the captain's “C” after Owen Nolan had been traded to Toronto late the season before, and Denis Marleau knew his son had been wearing that badge proudly that month.

"About the 'C,' " Patrick said.

"Yeah," said his dad. "How much longer are you going to be the captain?"

"Well," the younger Marleau continued, "it is supposed to be Alyn McCauley's turn, but ..."

This is where the conversation, the words from a normally quiet, but very thoughtful, Patrick Marleau might have sounded louder going over the phone lines from San Jose to the farm back home in tiny Aneroid, Saskatchewan.

"Alyn told management that he thought I should be the full-time captain."

GM Doug Wilson and coach Ron Wilson and the team's veteran leaders -- Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci -- told management they thought it was a great idea.

Marleau was just 24, but he was already in his seventh season with the Sharks after being the team's first-round choice, second to Joe Thornton, in the 1997 Entry Draft. Marleau was established. A strong presence on the ice. Never took a night off.

"You can look for someone who has a loud voice and big persona. But players look for someone who is a quiet leader, someone who knows the right thing to say ... and when to say it," explained Thornton, now Marleau's linemate in San Jose. "Patty plays hard every day -- at practice and in the games. He's an example for all of us to follow. You want a captain who symbolizes that work ethic."

You can predict certain things from watching a 17-year-old player prior to their draft year. But the intangibles that translate into a leader normally can be traced back to a player's upbringing. For Patrick Marleau, that’s being brought up by Denis and Jeanette, his parents, whose farm in Aneroid concentrates on cattle, grain and wheat.

"I'll never forget those days when we would come home from school, get our chores done and then go out to the dugout, shovel off the snow and play hockey until it got dark," Marleau said. "School, chores and then hockey. That's what my dad always reminded my brother, Richard, and me."

It was a culture that breeds hard work and solid citizens.

There’s a post office, a general store that serves gas, a grain elevator and Shaw's hotel, which has seven guest rooms in Aneroid. But there’s no stop light and the nearest high school was more than an hour away in Swift Current.

"I'll never forget where I came from. Never," Marleau told me. "I remember when I left for San Jose hearing my dad say, 'Son, never forget your roots.' "

Marleau paused and kind of hinted that Aneroid will always be a part of him. Like learning to skate in the dugout -- where the cattle would go for water. When the water would freeze over, Patrick and Richard Marleau had some really competitive games of one-on-one. They also became good friends with the caretaker of the local skating rink.

"We called him Tony Zamboni," Marleau recalled. "We were always knocking at his door. I think he would wait for us sometimes, then would let us in."

Sort of like Patrick Marleau's own little Field of Dreams story -- at the dugout and their own little skating rink in town.

"I was small until I was 15-16, something like 5-foot-9, 5-10," Marleau recalled. "Then I had a spurt when I was 16 and grew to 6-0, 6-1. I felt bigger and stronger and more confident."

Now, Patrick is one of the most difficult players in the NHL to game plan because of his size and speed.

"Marleau is big, strong and fast. Give him a step and he’s gone," Predators defenseman Shea Weber told me.

"He gets on you pretty fast," St. Louis Blues goaltender Chris Mason added.

In junior hockey, you can use your speed and still score from the perimeter. Not in the NHL. Once Patrick began to use all of his great tools, he began to dominate a game.

Marleau was a captain of teams in his formative years back home in Western Canada. But it was the hands-on learning he was getting from the likes of Damphousse, Ricci, Nolan, Adam Graves, Murray Craven, Tony Granato, Teemu Selanne and Kelly Hrudey that helped make Patrick a complete hockey player.

"I'll never forget the long conversations I used to have with Adam Graves, Vinny Damphousse, Mike Ricci and Murray Craven and leadership," Marleau said. "It's those little things that veterans do for young players -- like when Kelly Hrudey and his wife let me live with them. All Kelly asked is that sometime in the future I do that for a young player, too.

"Before we had a little one around the house, we took Steve Bernier in and I tried to give him advice about things he'd be facing and answer any questions he might have."

I teased Joe Thornton, asking him if the most captainly thing Patty ever did was pick him up at the airport in Buffalo after Joe had been traded to the Sharks from Boston back in 2005-06 season.

"No, that's just the kind of guy Patty is," Thornton laughed. "He and Kyle McLaren wanted me to feel welcome. And I definitely did from Day 1."

There were those outside of the Sharks’ dressing room who wondered about Marleau's leadership when his statistics slumped miserably in the first half of last season after his numbers also had fallen off in the playoffs one spring earlier when hopes for a long playoff run were ended in the second round.

But in the midst of a ton of trade rumors before last February's NHL trade deadline, Doug and Ron Wilson sat down with Marleau, trying to assure their captain of his continued importance to the team.

"The captaincy? My experience with Patty, my knowledge of him, would indicate he would be a very good captain -- and based on the way he's played for me, my opinion hasn't changed." -- Sharks coach Todd McLellan
Patty let the speculation eat him alive and reduce his effectiveness -- 11 goals and 20 assists in his first 59 games -- on the ice. Until he finally saw the trade deadline come and go Feb. 28. What followed were 8 goals and 9 assists in the last 19 games, including two game-winning goals. Plus, 2 goals and 4 assists in the first six games of the first round of the playoffs.

But even after Marleau was vindicated by some, the naming of new coach Todd McLellan brought up the should-he-be-captain questions.

After McLellan moved from Detroit to San Jose on Aug. 21, he invited Marleau to dinner.

"I told Patty that happened before July was history that I wasn't part of," said McLellan, who coached Marleau when Todd was the head coach at Swift Current and Marleau was a junior star there. "I remember his dad riding on the bus with the team, but ..."

It wasn't a close relationship. But there was a thread.

And McLellan, as a key member of Mike Babcock's coaching staff with the Detroit Red Wings remembered Marleau's body of work against the Wings.

"He could take over a game with his size and speed ... and I mean offensively and defensively," McLellan said. "The captaincy? My experience with Patty, my knowledge of him, would indicate he would be a very good captain -- and based on the way he's played for me, my opinion hasn't changed."

And Marleau justified the faith with a terrific 2008-09 season, scoring a career high 38 goals and 33 assists and going plus 16.

When I asked McLellan how he feels about the confidence and leadership he has been playing with in leading the Sharks to the best record in hockey, the coach said that didn't matter.

"It's not what I think about him. It's about how he feels about himself," McLellan explained. "And I'd say, 'It looks to me like he feels pretty good about himself.' "
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