Patrick Marleau remembers his first training camp. It was 1997, and he had just turned 18. Though the San Jose Sharks had selected him No. 2 in the 1997 NHL Draft, getting drafted was one thing; trying to make the team was another. He was a step closer to the NHL, excited to receive per diem, a little walking-around money that allowed him to go to the mall and pick out things he couldn't afford before.
"And then just going to the rink and being able to call it your job … " he said Thursday, not finishing his sentence, collecting his thoughts. "And obviously, it's not a job when it's something you love and you get to do it every day. I just couldn't believe the situation I was in, just getting out of high school, getting out of junior, coming into training camp and knowing that was going to be my life."
Look at the life he has led: The 41-year-old forward has played 1,765 NHL games, two short of 1,767, the record held by Gordie Howe. The Sharks are scheduled to play at the Minnesota Wild on Friday (8 p.m. ET; BSN, BSWI, NBCSCA, NHL.TV) and Saturday, then at the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday. If all goes according to plan, Marleau will tie the record Saturday and break it Monday.
To put 1,768 NHL games in perspective, consider that as of Thursday 8,072 players have appeared in a game in more than a century of history, starting with the NHL's first season in 1917-18. Only five have reached 1,700: Howe, Marleau, Mark Messier (1,756), Jaromir Jagr (1,733) and Ron Francis (1,731).
"It's a lot of hockey games," laughed Francis, now the general manager of the Seattle Kraken, who will become the NHL's 32nd team when they begin play as an expansion team next season. (The League had 26 teams when Marleau's career began in 1997-98. It did not have a team in the city where Marleau is scheduled to break the record, Las Vegas, until the Vegas Golden Knights became the 31st team in 2017-18.)
Video: Patrick Marleau plays his first game in the NHL
"I know," Francis said. "I played for 23 years. Those are a lot of hockey games for me. It's great to see Patrick still playing, and I think maybe at times you think nobody was going to catch certain records, but it looks like he's going to do it, and that's exciting for him. It's great for the game."
How has Marleau reached this point when so many others did not or have not?
"Well, it's a combination of things," said Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness, who holds the NHL record for games coached (2,408) including associate and assistant roles. "First of all, a great skater like Patrick, they play longer. It's not as much of a wear and tear on the body over the years because you're just a natural skater. But it also speaks volumes on his character, the way he's looking after himself off the ice and his conditioning, to allow him to skate as well as he still does.
"When you can persevere as long as he has and play that many games, it's more of a character issue. It's not just his physical abilities. The man is a driven man, and he's got great character, great work habits, and that's why he's lasted as long as he has."
Marleau said this has been an opportunity to thank everyone who has helped him along the way, from his trainers to his coaches to his teammates to his opponents. It has been a great way for them show their respect, too.
After the Sharks played the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, Kings coach Todd McLellan, assistant Marco Sturm and captain Anze Kopitar shook Marleau's hand. McLellan coached Marleau in San Jose from 2008-15. Sturm was an NHL rookie the same season Marleau was and retired in 2011-12; he has been an assistant for three seasons already. Kopitar has played against Marleau since 2006-07.
The same thing happened after the Sharks played the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday. There was Ducks goalie Ryan Miller, an opponent since 2002-03, and captain Ryan Getzlaf, an opponent since 2005-06.
Video: Gordie Howe, 'Mr. Hockey,' enjoyed five-decade career
"I don't take that lightly," Marleau said. "That obviously means a lot to me. … Those are quick little moments at the end of the game, but there's a lot of history behind those handshakes that I cherish."
Perhaps the best part is that Marleau and his wife, Christina, have four sons ages 6-14. Their sons are old enough to understand the significance of the record and are set to be in Vegas to see him break it Monday.
At the same time, Marleau has not lost the love for the game he had at his first training camp, the love that has sustained him all these years. His contract expires after this season, but he doesn't feel finished. He's still trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
"I still feel good," Marleau said. "I'd like to keep playing as long as I can, as long as my family is willing to keep supporting me and see me off on road trips and welcome me home coming back. We'll try and keep it going as long as we can."