SAN JOSE -- Patrick Marleau drove to work Thursday the same way he has driven to work for the past 16 years. He motored up Highway 17 toward downtown and then onto Interstate 280 for the arena exit. He pulled into the players' parking lot.
Just across the road, there was a banner hanging on a pole along the Santa Clara Street side of Arena Green park. The banner had Marleau's face on it. It's one of many banners with various Sharks, up and down the sidewalks and streets downtown. But it seems fitting, for the most senior Shark, to have his banner the closest to the ice. And sure, he has seen the thing.
"I've also seen the banner hanging pretty far away from the building," Marleau joked the other day at practice.
It's always been hanging somewhere, however. Perhaps the best way to fully explain the way Marleau's hockey life is intertwined with the Sharks is to quote this rather stunning statistic: He has played in 70.3 percent of the team's 1,656 regular season games as an NHL franchise. That amounts to 1,165 games in a teal uniform, if you're counting. Marleau has also played in 80.4 percent of the team's 174 all-time playoff games.
Thursday night, those remarkable percentages were scheduled to increase even more. One more time, Marleau was going to put on his hockey uniform. One more time, he was going to be introduced for a home opener. And one more time, the Sharks were beginning a season that they hope will end with them winning the last playoff game they play. But probably won't, if you go by the law of averages. Or will this finally be the season of seasons?
You won't get deep and trenchant comment about that from Marleau. Owing to his constant presence in a Shark uniform, he is usually the focus of every good and bad development in Shark history. He has to be as frustrated as anyone that the team has never reached a Stanley Cup finals. He never lets it show. He has that climate-control personality of never getting too up or too down.
But he knows the deal. Damn straight he does. He understands that this season's Shark team, with Marleau and Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle in the final seasons of their contracts and in the 30-something range of players with far more games behind them than ahead of them, could be the last go-round for that core group. So the drive to work will not be boring for him. When he steps onto the ice, it won't be the same-old, same-old.
"For me, it's exciting," Marleau said. "It was a lot of fun last spring in the playoffs with these guys, with the people we had, and most are back. We're looking forward to getting going."
Every hockey fan does. But to those of us who have been around the franchise even longer than Marleau, here is the forecast: Another season where the Sharks are among the NHL's top six or seven teams. Another winter of some very fun nights at The Tank with the old guys and the younger guys, plus an exciting rookie debut from Tomas Hertl. Another trip to the playoffs, for certain. And then another springtime where they probably won't be among the last two teams standing. Those third and fourth lines are still a little too iffy. Team depth is an issue. You never know, though. Marleau, it says here, can be the catalyst to override the shortcomings. Logan Couture may be the new team momentum-creator and Thornton will continue to be an engine of scoring chances. Marleau has the Shark DNA to turn it all into something special, though. There have been times he is justifiably criticized and times he is unjustifiably criticized. He willingly gave up the captaincy when asked. He does a good job of compartmentalizing and skating on. His legacy here will be largely a happy one, whenever he leaves San Jose. Yet if he can have his own season of seasons at age 34 and help the team take the ride to Cupville, just imagine what his legacy would be.
It's also not a ridiculous thought to say Marleau might have a career year. His goal production has ranged from 30 to 44 over the past five years, not including the 17 he scored in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 schedule that would have equaled more than 30 goals in normal season. And we probably are guilty of forgetting how many excellent moments the Sharks had in their first-round sweep of Vancouver, plus in certain stretches of that vicious and hammer-tong seven-game series against the Los Angeles Kings that the Sharks took to the limit before losing.
Optimism always flows this time of year. But with the reduction in size of goalie equipment and the extra space added around the nets, scorers should get even more of a boost. Especially if, as rumored, the refereeing standard will include less tolerance of the clutching and interference that has crept back into the game after the rules changes of 2006 that were designed to promote a faster and cleaner game. Those changes really helped Marleau, who entered the league in 1997 at its sludgy worst.
"In those early seasons for me, there was all this hooking and holding and grabbing," Marleau said. "There were times you had to practically pull the guy with you around the ice on your back. It's a lot better now."
Marleau has lived in four different residences during his time in San Jose. He has owned five different cars. He remembers the first time he showed up in town as a teenager, when the Sharks' practice facility had only two sheets of ice (there are now four) and when the "locker room" was a temporary mobile trailer in the parking lot. The franchise has come so far, even if Marleau never stops to think about how he is a living, breathing and skating slice of Shark history.
That history was ready for one more chapter Thursday night. Marleau, as much or more than anyone, will help write it. Time to start the drive to work. If Marleau is still making it next June, there will be many more banners on Santa Clara Street.