Patrick Marleau’s time in the Western Hockey League may have only spanned two seasons, but it paved the way for a legendary hockey career still going to this day.
Many years before the 1,723 NHL regular season games, 562 NHL goals, and two Olympic gold medals, the Seattle Thunderbirds called out the name of the Aneroid, Sask. product with the sixth-overall selection in the 1994 WHL Bantam Draft. After one more season in nearby Swift Current with the Legionnaires, Marleau would make the full-time jump to the Thunderbirds for the 1995-96 WHL Regular Season.
Recording 74 points (32G-42A) in 72 games, Marleau provided a strong offensive presence as a 16-year-old. He wouldn’t have to wait too long either until he could return to the Land of Living Skies. On October 8, 1995, he scored in a loss to the Prince Albert Raiders but was just beginning to show his signs of greatness in the WHL.
Playing closer to home a few nights later Marleau scored twice, including the game-winning goal, as the Thunderbirds took a 4-2 win over the Regina Pats.
After being held to a single assist against the Brandon Wheat Kings in the late stages of that road trip, Marleau countered with two goals and three points as the Thunderbirds took a 5-3 win when they hosted the Wheaties later that month in Seattle.
Marleau’s success in inter-divisional play continued against the Lethbridge Hurricanes on February 18, 1996. He scored Seattle’s first and third goals of the contest to help them edge the Hurricanes by a 3-2 score.
Though all games mattered that season, his chance to return as close to home as possible came on March 8, 1996 when the Thunderbirds took on the Swift Current Broncos, providing a highlight for the budding hockey star. In front of a familiar crowd, Marleau delivered with his team’s lone goal in a 1-1 tie, one of seven ties for Seattle throughout the regular season.
Finishing with a 29-36-7 record, the Thunderbirds had 65 points to finish fifth in the West Division. That set up a first-round matchup against the defending WHL Champion Kamloops Blazers. Though the Thunderbirds would fall in five games, Marleau had seven points (3G-4A) to be one of his team’s offensive leaders yet again.
With the pressure on the Thunderbirds later in the series, Marleau tallied four of those points over Game 4 and Game 5 with a goal and an assist in each.
Marleau and the Thunderbirds returned looking to deliver a stronger performance in the 1996-97 WHL season. A breakout second campaign by Marleau helped to ensure that as his 125 points (51G-74A) ranked third in WHL scoring while the Thunderbirds would roar to a 41-27-4 record and 86 points, placing them second in the West Division.
Among many key performances to start the season, Marleau tallied a pair of goals and an assist on November 10, 1996 in a 4-1 win over the Spokane Chiefs. With the defending Western Conference Champion Chiefs also fixated on claiming the top spot in the division, the win helped widen the gap between the two sides in Seattle’s favour.
Marking their debut season in the WHL, the Edmonton ICE hosted the Thunderbirds on November 22, 1996. With the dominant offence of the Thunderbirds claiming a 12-1 win, Marleau tallied a hat trick to add onto the offensive show.
Four performances stood out for Marleau in December 1996. In what would be his last game against the Broncos, he scored twice in a 6-3 win in Seattle. On December 8, he tallied four points (2G-2A) in a 4-2 win over the Tri-City Americans. Five days later in a 7-2 win over the Prince Albert Raiders, Marleau drew primary assists on his team’s first three goals and scored twice to complete the five-point performance. In an 11-2 win over the Kelowna Rockets later in the month, Marleau tallied five more points with a goal and four assists.
The new year brought with it more offensive success, including a pair of four-point performances against the Tri-City Americans on February 9 and February 16.
Staying hot down the stretch, fate put the Thunderbirds into a first-round series against the Kamloops Blazers in the 1997 WHL Playoffs. With a five-game series repeating between the two clubs, it was the Thunderbirds winning this time around.
Marleau made his presence felt in the opening game, tallying five points (1G-4A) in a 5-2 win. Throughout the five games, Marleau came to play with 14 points (5G-9A) in the series.
Eventually progressing to the 1997 WHL Championship Series, Marleau and the Thunderbirds would fall to the Lethbridge Hurricanes in four games. However, the team still delighted fans with their first-ever trip to the WHL Championship Series, with them winning it all 20 years later.
That summer also proved to be a defining moment in Marleau’s hockey career as the San Jose Sharks made him the second-overall selection at the 1997 NHL Draft.
Among players drafted that year, Marleau’s 1,723 NHL games rank first, as does his 562 goals. His 626 assists and 1,188 points rank second in each category as well. Starring for the Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs, Marleau has left a strong imprint on the game of hockey in the present and for the future.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist with Canada, Marleau played key roles in the victories in 2010 and 2014 to further cement his name among the best players from his era and draft class.
Recently becoming a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Marleau is once again sporting a colourful bird on his jersey like he did more than 20 years ago in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
From Aneroid to Seattle and beyond, the game of hockey wouldn’t be the same without Patrick Marleau.