February 24, 2015

The Cheechoo Train Rolls On

Remember Jonathan Cheechoo?

He came from the tiny Cree village of Moose Factory, Ontario where hunting is the way of life. But so is hockey. And Cheechoo made the unlikely journey all the way to the big leagues where he led the National Hockey League in goal scoring in 2005-06. 

Cheechoo grew up playing shinny on the outdoor rink his father would build for him in the back yard. Winter would last well into March usually, allowing for a lot of action in the island community.

There was no indoor arena in Moose Factory at the time, so he had to play his organized hockey in nearby Moosonee. Nearby is relative. It's only 3 kilometers away but there are no roads connecting Moose Factory and the mainland. Fortunately winter's harsh conditions would usually bring a natural bridge of ice for snowmobiles to cross.

Cheechoo clearly had the knack for hockey. He was a great goal scorer and initiated a physical game. But he would have to leave his sheltered life to pursue his NHL dream.

He was off to Timmins, which is 300 kilometers south of Moose Factory though most Torontonians would never go so far north. Then he was off to Kitchener to play Tier II and then Belleville to play in the OHL. Cheechoo was drafted 29th overall by the Sharks in 1998.

The story may seem improbable to most, but this is exactly what Cheechoo envisioned. Several years before he was drafted he had a school assignment where he wrote about his future self. Not only did he see himself playing in the NHL, but it would be with the San Jose Sharks.

Even after a couple of all star seasons in the American Hockey League, I don't think even Jonathan Cheechoo ever thought he would lead the National Hockey League in goal scoring. But that's exactly what he did in 2005-06 with 56 goals, winning the Rocket Richard trophy.

Playing alongside new Shark Joe Thornton certainly didn't hurt.

"I've always known I could score goals," said Cheechoo. "But when Joe (Thornton) came, I got the opportunity to play with him. He's a great passer and he draws a lot of double-teams which opens up more ice for us. He can still pass with two guys on him. It's pretty amazing some of the stuff he does."

Thornton admired Cheechoo's ability, too.

“He's a kid who really finds the open ice well and gets himself available for shots. He's got one of the better shots on our team and he finds the holes in the goaltenders out there and creates opportunities where maybe other guys couldn't.

“He's got a great work ethic. He never gives up on plays, with second and third efforts. He looks like he's down and out and he's going to be beat to the ice, and the next thing you know, he's slip-sliding to the net for a breakaway.

“He's got confidence in himself and he really loves pressure situations. He wants the puck on his stick and he wants to score.”

With his success came a lot of money. He signed a $15 million contract extension. Though he moved his family to southern Ontario, he has never forgotten where he is from.

“I’m from Moose Factory and am proud of it. But there is a lot of pride because the people of Moose Factory have really supported me over the years. They’d travel down to see my and see my games, and it is important to see a friendly face. It is the little things like that just want me to work that much harder to make it.”

The community once raised $10,000 to send Jonathan to a hockey school in Toronto. He has never forgotten that. He takes being a role model very seriously.

"I am still Cree and I will always be Cree but there are a lot of things you have to change when you move down (mainstream North America),” he says. “There are changes you have to make but you hold on to your roots and you always remember when you came from.

"Growing up, I idolized a lot of people like Ted Nolan. Every time they came and spoke, it was a big honour for me, just to get any type of advice I could from them. I know how these kids are all looking up to me, watching how I live and present myself.”

"I do a lot of things with the youth. They come down a lot of times when we play in Canada. I set aside some time usually after our morning skates to talk with them. They're pretty excited when they meet me and I take that as an honour. I must be doing something right if the kids are looking up to you. In the same vein, you want to do your best in your life, not just in hockey. You want to live a clean life so they have a positive role model to look up to."

Injuries - specifically hernia surgery - derailed the Cheechoo Train. He'd "only" score 37 goals in 2006-07, still an impressive number. Then he slipped to 23 and 12, before scoring just 5 in a season with Ottawa. He just didn't have the speed any longer to get open to score.

His journey continues. He signed on with KHL teams in Zagreb and Minsk. But when you come from a tiny Cree town where southern Ontario and California seem foreign, adjusting Eastern Europe is hardly new for Jonathan Cheechoo.

"It's something I wouldn't have expected for sure, but everyone goes down a different road in life and I'm just having fun with it,"

"I feel really good about it, I feel good about my game now. It's really just been a lot of fun. Croatia's been great. I brought my family over. Zagreb is a great town and it's been a lot of fun playing for the team."

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