Patrick Marleau, back with the Sharks after two seasons, sheds tears in return home

Sharks center Patrick Marleau skates against the Calgary Flames on Sunday in San Jose.
Sharks center Patrick Marleau skates against the Calgary Flames on Sunday in San Jose. AP

I’m going to guess that most Sharks observers had the same reaction early in the 1997-98 season upon seeing Patrick Marleau for the first time.

“Who’s that?” I asked a colleague, incredulous, upon seeing Marleau streak down the ice with wings on his skates.

Marleau was just a kid then, 18 years old. The Sharks were even younger — just starting their seventh season.

The Sharks had compiled a relatively comprehensive dossier for such a young outfit.

Characters? You bet. The name Link Gaetz still elicits a smile from a true Sharks fan. In Season 3 the team acquired Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, two-thirds of the fabled Russian KLM line. At the end of that season, Sharks fans elected their first folk hero when Jamie Baker scored the goal that allowed San Jose to defeat the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the first playoff series of the franchise’s existence.

The following spring, Ray Whitney scored in double overtime to give the Sharks a dramatic Game 7 victory over the Flames in Calgary.

So the Sharks had a certain profile. But they never had a Marleau, with speed, skill and unlimited potential. And he was all theirs.

Marleau, the Sharks and the team’s neophyte fans grew up together. Through postseason disappointments. Through shocking triumphs (Owen Nolen’s 90-foot slap that shot beat the St. Louis Blues in 2000 in yet another fabulous Game 7). Through more elimination games than anyone cares to count.

Ultimately the relationship between Marleau and his fans became static. The Sharks won — making the playoffs 15 times during his first 17 seasons with the team. But the biggest prize, the Stanley Cup, remained agonizingly out of reach. Some trained their frustrations on Marleau. But he remained an honorary native son because he was theirs. And because he was so doggone genial.

His defection to the Toronto Maple Leafs after the 2016-17 season seemed like a foregone conclusion even before the fact.

Which brings us to Sunday night and a bonus reunion. Marleau, a 40-year-old free agent, signed with the Sharks after the season began in what could only be considered a sentimental move — for everybody concerned. Sunday night the center was back in the Shark Tank, wearing a Sharks jersey, for the first time in two years. It was Marleau’s first home game with the team since April 2017.

Then he was on the video board, the emotion evident on his face as the SAP Center faithful gave him a standing ovation during the Sharks’ game against the Flames. After a video tribute, Marleau stood up to acknowledge the fans in attendance, with most rising to their feet to chant, “Patty, Patty.”

Marleau had an assist in the 3-1 victory for San Jose (2-4-0).

We don’t know how long this arrangement will last. Or when the Sharks will win a Cup. But Patrick Marleau will always and forever be a prodigal son who returned to where he belongs, the same as Bay Area icons Rick Barry, Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson and Chris Mullin.