After ‘really tough’ time following his retirement, Patrick Marleau turns to family, coaching

After ‘really tough’ time following his retirement, Patrick Marleau turns to family, coaching

After ‘really tough’ time following his retirement, Patrick Marleau turns to family, coaching

CORAL SPRINGS, Florida — Even after he broke Gordie Howe’s all-time NHL record for games played, suiting up for the San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs and, briefly, the Pittsburgh Penguins over a 23-year career which included 1,779 regular season games, 20 playoff appearances, 1,197 points (50th all-time), three All-Star games, 109 game-winning goals (tied for seventh all-time), 910 straight games (fifth all-time), two Olympic gold medals, and a reputation as one of hockey’s most gentlemanly players, Patrick Marleau struggled, really struggled, to bring his career to a culmination.

When the start of the 2021-22 season came around, and it began to sink in that no NHL team was going to extend him an invite, Marleau couldn’t bear to watch any games on television. It was just too difficult.

“It’s tough. I won’t lie. It was really tough not playing,” Marleau said recently in an interview at his home in Parkland, Florida, where he has relocated from San Jose with his wife Christina and their four boys.

“Opening night, the first year he was done, he so badly wanted to be out there,” Christina said. “He just loves the game so much, and to see when it started, that was probably the hardest because it was the first time he wasn’t out there.”

Eventually, Marleau’s four hockey-crazed sons — Landon, 16, Brody, 13, Jagger, 11, and Caleb, 7 — figured out they should probably alter their viewing habits when the man of the house was around.

Patrick Marleau with wife Christina and sons Landon, 16, Brody, 13, Jagger, 11, and Caleb, 7. (Photo: Christina Marleau)

“Last year I think they kind of knew, let’s not watch this around Dad,” Christina said.

It’s commonplace for professional athletes to struggle with going from such a regimented schedule during their playing days to suddenly having to figure out what they are going to do with their remaining weeks, years and decades of life. Sure, many of them won’t ever have to worry about money, and Marleau accumulated nearly $100 million in salary during his career. They’re not seeking any sympathy.

But that doesn’t make the days any shorter.

“Just trying to figure out my own plan, how to spend my own time, was probably the biggest thing,” Marleau said. “It was hard. And then talking to other retired players, some say it took years in order to feel normal.”

Marleau hasn’t really known anything but hockey since he was a kid. He went from the frozen pond in the backyard of his family farm in the minuscule, off-the-map town of Aneroid, Saskatchewan, to Seattle, where he thrived for the junior Thunderbirds. The Sharks made him the No. 2 pick in the 1997 NHL draft, and he began his first NHL training camp a few days before he even turned 18. Marleau made the Sharks out of that camp and never looked back until he announced his retirement on May 10, 2022 at the age of 42.

He made the announcement with an essay in The Player’s Tribune, mentioning that he was going to have to “figure out who I am again.”

He indicated that he’s since made steps in that regard over the past few months, but it’s still a work in progress.

“My whole life has been hockey, hockey, hockey. That’s how you identify, that’s what you do,” he said. “It’s trying to find (out), what’s the next step, or what’s your next passion?”

Said Christina: “I equate it to it’s been the first time he’s truly had to be an adult. He’s always been told where to go, what to do, when to eat, when to sleep, go to this place and do this. And then all of a sudden no one’s telling him to do that. So, it was tough. He’d be looking at me for direction. I’m like, buddy, I’ve got four other kids. I can’t be your guide, as well.”

“It has not been easy at all. It was really tough for him.”

Prior to moving to Florida in the summer, Marleau got a call from an old friend.

Mike Grier was a teammate of Marleau’s with the Sharks for three seasons, from 2006-07 through 2008-09. They were never regular linemates, but spent lots of time together off the ice, often grabbing dinner on the road. They have stayed in touch over the years.

Grier, named the general manager of the Sharks in July, figured that his former teammate might be able to impart some of his vast knowledge of the game to the organization’s prospects in the Bay Area for the annual rookie camp.

After ‘really tough’ time following his retirement, Patrick Marleau turns to family, coaching

Patrick Marleau at San Jose Sharks Development Camp. (Photo: Kavin Mistry / San Jose Sharks)

Marleau seized the opportunity. At that point, it had been more than a year after he had played his final NHL game, so the end of his career and the immediate emotional difficulties that came with that weren’t as fresh in his mind. This might be a good way to ease back into the game.

“I was excited to do it,” Marleau said. “It was something to do, something to get out there and help the boys. And just to try it out, as well.”

As it turns out, that was just the beginning.

The Marleaus moved to Florida primarily to try and help further the career prospects of their son, Landon, who has NHL aspirations of his own. The program that Landon is now part of is run by another former teammate of Marleau’s, Shawn Heins, a gritty defenseman in the Sharks organization from 1998-99 until 2002-03, bouncing between the NHL team and their AHL affiliate in Kentucky. Heins spent the final nine seasons of his pro career playing in Europe before his retirement in 2013.

Marleau and Heins became friendly early in their careers, and Heins’ wife was even in the Marleaus’ wedding party. The two ran into each other last year at a youth tournament in Chicago and shortly after that, Heins invited Landon to join an elite prospects showcase event in Rochester, New York.

The experience was a positive one, sparking the move. Landon is now spending upwards of eight to 10 hours a week on the ice, with Heins as the head coach of the under-16 AAA Florida Alliance program. The intensity and thoroughness of the program is not something that was going to be available in San Jose, Marleau learned after a discussion with former NHL forward Peter Worrell, now the hockey director of the Panthers’ youth programs.

And, now, Patrick Marleau is one of Heins’ assistant coaches.

Patrick Marleau on the ice with the Florida Panthers’ youth hockey program. (Photo: Christina Marleau)

There are some differences in their respective approaches.

“I’m more of the in-your-face type coach, where he’s more of a calming factor,” said Heins, whose son, Caeden Heins, is also on the team. “I am who I am, I’ve always been when I played. I was intense. So, I think it’s a good mixture.”

Ryan McCarney is a defenseman on the team, and his father, Jim McCarney, can vividly recall a moment last year when Heins, upset with the way the players were executing a drill, blew it dead and cranked a slap shot into the glass. The glass shattered.

“That got everyone’s attention,” McCarney said.

That’s a contrast to Marleau’s style and personality, to be sure.

“Shawn’s got attention to detail; if the kids are giving 50 or 75 percent, he’ll call them out and be hard on them,” McCarney said. “I don’t really see Patrick yelling much at all. He obviously knows how to show and demonstrate a drill, and give good coaching feedback, and has a great eye for the game. The kids, I think, have an understanding of what a huge opportunity and privilege it is to have someone like Patrick helping them. Maybe the older guys like us appreciate it a little more.”

That’s not all Marleau is doing, though. He’s also the head coach of the under-12 team, on which his son Jagger plays. On the late October day we spent with Marleau, he was at the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs from 1 p.m. until 3:30 pm with the under-16s, and then back again from 5:45 pm to 7:45 pm with the under-12s. He’ll go on the ice with his other two boys from time to time, too.

“In a normal week I’m pretty much at the rink every day,” Marleau said. “I might even be at the rink more now than when I was playing.”

His transition into coaching, though, was still not something that necessarily came naturally — particularly with the under-12s, who are still trying to establish the basic fundamentals of the sport.

“At first he was like, ‘oh gosh, I don’t know if I’m going to be a good coach. I’ve never done it before,’” Christina said. “I just told him to trust himself. You know how to play hockey. You’ve done it a long time. You can help these kids get started. After the first couple of practices, he went from being nervous about it to really enjoying it. He loves talking about the kids.”

Marleau has help with the under-12s from husband and wife tandem, Brian and Tanis Depp. And, despite describing himself as a “full-blown rookie coach,” listening to Marleau discuss his time with the younger kids, it’s evident that he’s truly embraced it.

“We were teaching them three-on-twos, and how we wanted them to enter the zone,” Marleau said. “We went over it on the (white) board and I had the assistants helping them on the bench with what we wanted them to do. (Brian) came up to me and said the one line went down and did it exactly to a tee. Then you heard them on the bench, ‘Oh, that really works, we need to do that in a game.’”

He continued: “It’s fun once you give them something to do and they go out and do it, whether it be in practice or in a game, and you hear them talking about them on the bench. It’s pretty cool.”

Do the kids, whether they be older or younger, have an appreciation that their coach played more NHL games than anyone else that has ever walked the Earth?

Marleau isn’t sure.

“I think some of them do,” he said. “Probably some of them had to figure out who I was. I’m not a YouTube star or anything like that.”

Marleau jumping headfirst into and embracing youth coaching begs the question, does he want to become an NHL coach at some point in the future?

It certainly wouldn’t be too tough of a transition. Pete DeBoer, the coach of the Dallas Stars who was Marleau’s head coach for more than two seasons in San Jose, has no doubt that Marleau would be effective behind an NHL bench.

The commitment to doing the job, though, is not for everyone.

“You just put your family through 20 years of an NHL schedule and not being around your kids, traveling,” DeBoer said. “Are you willing to do that again, do you want to sign up for that again?

“For me, it’s not if he would be any good at it — he’d be exceptional at it. Smart guy, class act. He’s a lot like (Stars center and Marleau’s former teammate) Joe Pavelski here with us. Those guys were coaching while they were still playing. I remember what Patty did with those young guys in Toronto, and what Joe Pavelski is doing here with our group. They started that coaching process long before they finished playing.”

After signing with the Maple Leafs in the 2018 offseason, Marleau embraced a mentor role in Toronto for guys like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But it was also a symbiotic relationship.

“(Teammates would) tell me, when you talk to the young guys, you don’t realize how much impact you have on these young guys coming in. This was pretty early on,” Marleau said. “Then I probably started realizing it more later in my career in Toronto, probably with Mitch and Auston. I wasn’t really doing anything, those guys were well on their way anyway, but I think selfishly I was using them to try and learn something from them.

“Probably later on in the career you feel comfortable talking to the young guys and letting them know what I saw, or what the coaches were trying to get out of them, whether it be system-wise. Or just habits, or being professional.”

Marleau mentioned there have been “talks with the Sharks” in terms of keeping the door open in the event he wants to get involved with the organization that will formally retire his number 12 in a pregame ceremony on Feb. 25. If it’s not coaching, Marleau could serve as a professional scout, for example, as he doesn’t live too far from where the Panthers play games. The family also still has its home in San Jose, and certainly hasn’t ruled out returning to the area. They are renting in Florida.

But, Marleau is in no rush to get back into the NHL just yet.

“I think right now, where I’m at, taking the time with the family, trying to be around as much as I can and help the kids out (after) being gone for so many years and throughout their seasons,” Marleau said, “I’m just trying to enjoy that.”

In other words, getting back into the NHL is not something that he’s thinking too much about right now. As DeBoer suggested, the life of an NHL coach isn’t that different from a player in terms of time on the road away from the family. In fact, it can be even more time-consuming.

The Marleau family is simply enjoying extended time together after so many years of having to plan their lives around the demands of Patrick’s NHL life. The boys are thrilled their dad is a bigger part of their lives now.

“Oh, they love it,” Christina said. “It’s been a complete 180 from before, when maybe he would make a game or two during the season to now he’s on the bench or out at practices and on the ice with them. They liked when I went, but they like when Dad goes a lot more.”

That makes the whole retirement thing easier, too. And now, when the boys want to throw on the odd NHL game or even attend a Panthers game in person, it’s much more palatable for Marleau than it was a year ago.

“Now, he watches with them,” Christina said. “It’s much, much better this year.”

(Top photo: Courtesy of Christina Marleau)

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