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Homecoming in San Jose will be special for Marleau

Maple Leafs forward to play Sharks for first time after 19 seasons with them

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- The tears have been forming for almost two decades.

Patrick Marleau will do everything in his power to keep them from trickling down his cheeks.

Easier said than done.

Marleau will make his highly anticipated hockey homecoming when his Toronto Maple Leafs visit the San Jose Sharks on Monday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSCA, SNO, NHL.TV). The 38-year-old forward played the first 19 seasons of his NHL career in San Jose.

Marleau knows the Sharks will have some kind of in-game tribute for him. He doesn't know when it will take place or what it will be. But when that moment does come, with his wife and four sons among the family, friends and thousands of fans at SAP Center, he admits it will be difficult to hold back the emotions.

And the tears.

"I don't know how I'll react when it happens," Marleau said recently, fighting to find the right words. "Hopefully there is someone beside me making jokes or something. Keep things light."

To understand what Marleau is facing in his return, you have to understand what he has meant to the Sharks, dating to when they selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 1997 NHL Draft.

In this era of player movement and free agency, players going back to face their former teams seems to be a weekly occurrence. 

But Marleau's situation is different. This is far from a normal return. He is the Sharks' all-time leader in games played (1,493), goals (508) and points (1,082). Only six players in NHL history have played more games with one team than Marleau did with San Jose. When the Sharks took to the ice for their 2017-18 season opener on Oct. 5 against the Philadelphia Flyers, it was the first time they played a game without Marleau in the lineup since April 7, 2009.

Indeed, if you consider center Joe Thornton and his scraggly trademark beard to be the all-time face of the Sharks, then Marleau's tenure in teal represents the franchise's heart and soul. As such, the buildup for his first game back in San Jose since signing with the Maple Leafs as a free agent July 2, is ballooning.

Marleau's wife, Christina, and their four boys -- Landon, 11, Brody, 8, Jagger, 6, and Caleb, almost 3 -- went out to California last week in preparation for his return. The family still has a home in the Silicon Valley community of Saratoga, where his sister-in-law lives.

Marleau estimates ticket requests from friends and family have been limited to a relatively modest 11.

"My wife is taking care of those things," Marleau said. "I think most of the friends and family who are coming took it upon themselves to take care of themselves."

Marleau will suit up in the visitors dressing room at SAP Center on Monday. He's done that before on a couple of occasions during training camp, but never for a regular-season NHL game.

Video: LAK@TOR: Marleau deflects puck past Quick

In an ironic twist, it's the same dressing room where Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins sipped champagne from the Stanley Cup 505 days earlier after defeating the Sharks 3-1 in Game 6 of the Final on June 12, 2016. Losing the Final to the Penguins was the closest Marleau and the Sharks came to a championship during his time in San Jose.

"We had some really good teams there and still fell short and didn't win the Cup," Marleau said. "I think it just goes to show how hard it is to win it. Everything's got to line up for you. 

"It just gives you something to strive for."

In Patrick Marleau's case, he's now striving for it with a new team.


'Phenomenal teammate'

You could see the fatigue in Thornton's face when he sat in the visitors dressing room at KeyBank Center in Buffalo on Saturday afternoon. The Sharks had just defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 to complete a grueling five-game, nine-day Eastern road swing that had already included games against the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. 

The Sharks finished the trip 3-2-0. Now it was time to go home to San Jose. Finally. Thankfully. But not before answering questions about Marleau's homecoming.

Thornton was asked if he was ready for Monday.

"What's Monday? Halloween?" he responded, a wry grin on his face. 

Someone is coming back to San Jose on Monday. Remember?

"Oh, Mr. Marleau! Sure."

Does the coy Thornton have anything planned for the return of his longtime teammate?

"Maybe a spear," he said, breaking into laughter at his own joke.

"No, seriously, not really. Not yet."

At that moment, Thornton's colleague in facial hair, Sharks defensemen Brent Burns, walked by, munching on a slice of pizza. He stopped upon hearing Marleau's name.

"He's coming back on Monday, eh? Well, what day is today?" Burns asked.

"It's Saturday," replied Thornton.

"Wow. That's coming fast."

Some of their teammates unofficially refer to Thornton and Burns as "The Beard Brothers," for obvious reasons. Listening to the two exchange zingers, you would think their workplace is a comedy club, not a hockey arena.

When the subject is Marleau, however, these two have nothing but the utmost respect for their former teammate.

Thornton was drafted No. 1 in the 1997 draft by the Boston Bruins, one spot before the Sharks selected Marleau. They were teammates with the Sharks for 12 seasons after Boston traded Thornton to San Jose on Nov. 30, 2005.

"It wouldn't surprise me if Patty cried at some point on Monday," Thornton said. "You spend 19 years in a place; well, he's so beloved out there. The people obviously loved him. I'm sure he's going to get a really, really warm welcome when he gets back.

"He's a great human being, a salt-of-the-earth type of guy. He's just one of the really good guys in the game, and I got a chance to play with him for a long time. I never took it for granted either. I appreciated every day I had the chance to play with him. Phenomenal teammate."

Burns echoed those sentiments.

"I think he's got a great heart," Burns said. "He cares for a lot of people. He did a lot for the people in this room, for the city, for the fans. He grew up there, and it's pretty special. Obviously, we're going to do something pretty special.

"For me, personally, he was huge for me. He taught me a lot, even just by watching. He didn't say a lot. He didn't have to. He had a pretty great personality. He was a pretty good buddy. We had a lot of fun. 

"He was quieter, but then again most guys are quieter than Jumbo (Thornton)."

On a Sharks team with big personalities like Burns and Thornton, the soft-spoken, even-keeled Marleau proved to be the perfect complement. Burns joked that any emotions exhibited by Marleau on Monday would go against the grain for someone who normally was stoic on the outside, sometimes to an extreme.

"Hey, if the zombie apocalypse comes, I'll be prepared because I hung out with Patty," Burns laughed.

Video: Burns reacts to playing against Marleau in Toronto


Gone but not forgotten

Although Marleau spent the early days of training camp last month attempting to figure out the quickest driving route to Air Canada Centre from his new Toronto residence, one of his former teammates was trying to adapt as well.

Since making his debut with the Sharks during the 2009-10 season, Logan Couture and Marleau had neighboring cubicles in the dressing room. But when the Sharks congregated for training camp in September, Marleau wasn't there anymore.

Marleau signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Maple Leafs. Leaving San Jose was a difficult decision. When he phoned his parents in Aneroid, Saskatchewan, to discuss the possibility, his father, Denis, impressed by the young core of the Maple Leafs, replied: "Go for it."

In 11 games for Toronto, Marleau has seven points (four goals, three assists). In the process, he has enjoyed the chance to regularly play on "Hockey Night in Canada," including road games against the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.

"It's special," Marleau said. "Even when I was in San Jose, it was a big thing. Obviously, we had a lot of Canadian players. 

"You know that everyone is watching. To have that opportunity to do that now on a lot of weekends, you get up for it and have fun with it."

All the while, Marleau's absence is being felt in San Jose. Just ask Couture.

Video: Couture on facing off against Marleau in Toronto

Not having Marleau next to him in the dressing room has been an adjustment for Couture. For the past eight seasons, he would arrive at the rink knowing Marleau would be there to talk. It was a daily ritual between them.

"It's different not having him there," Couture said. "He was a guy I chatted with each morning, whether it was about life, about family, about whatever. I miss having him. From trainers to coaches to all the guys in the room, we all miss having him."

Couture (London), Burns (Ajax/Barrie), Thornton (St. Thomas) and Sharks coach Peter DeBoer (Dunnville) all grew up in southern Ontario and understand the pressure that goes with the omnipresent spotlight that shines on the Maple Leafs. Yet to a man, they all say the low-key Marleau can easily cope in the hockey fishbowl that is Toronto.

"I think people underestimate him," DeBoer said. "I think he can handle it. He's found the perfect way to keep it quiet: Just keep scoring every night."

Video: DeBoer discusses what is special about Marleau

Couture feels the publicity Marleau will receive in Toronto is long overdue.

"I think he enjoys it," Couture said. "He's really flown under the radar in San Jose. He's a guy who hasn't got the praise that he's deserved. So I think he's enjoying that, playing in Toronto with a good young team."

Marleau will return to San Jose on Monday, this time as part of that good young Maple Leafs team. As much as Thornton will enjoy seeing his former teammate, he's not ruling out the day that Marleau returns to the Sharks once his contract with the Maple Leafs runs out.

"We like to think he's coming back home -- he's just gone for a couple of years but hopefully he'll come back," Thornton said. "He can probably play until he's 45. 

"It's going to be a special night for him."

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