Aspiring hockey players of Eeyou Istchee now have a very inspiring role model to look up to. Jonathan Cheechoo, the pride of Moose Factory, Ontario, is currently playing a regular shift with the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks.

Drafted by the Sharks in 1998 (2nd round, 29th overall), Cheechoo has taken a longer route than some to get to the big leagues. After becoming a star in Junior with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, Cheechoo had to struggle through tough times within San Jose’s system, playing in Cleveland and Kentucky.

This proved to be exactly what he needed. Instead of looking at it as a negative experience, Cheechoo used his time in the minors to push himself harder, and work towards playing full-time in the NHL.

“I just figured if I kept working as hard as I was working, and showed that I could improve each year, then they’d have to give me a chance,” Cheechoo says philosophically.

Growing up, all Cheechoo wanted to do was play hockey. At 14 he moved away to play in Timmins in order to get more exposure to NHL scouts. He eventually made it to Kitchener, where he was drafted by Belleville. The rest as they say, is history.

Now that he’s made it to the NHL, Cheechoo knows the key to continued success comes with working on the little things, and improving with each game. “The biggest obstacle that I had to overcome was my (lack of) speed. I spent the last three summers sprinting and doing a lot of leg work and now it’s come a long way.”

Because he was exposed to a different world as a teenager, there hasn’t been any real culture shock in San Jose. The only thing he’s still adapting to is the lack of snow, along with the warmer climate.

Cheechoo gives a lot of the credit for where he is today to former NHL coach of the year Ted Nolan. “He paved the way for us (Native people). He was definitely a role model for me growing up.”

Another player that benefited from Nolan’s success was Jordin Tootoo. Tootoo has now become the first Inuit to play in the NHL, which is something that impresses Cheechoo. “It’s great, he’s really paving the way for those people up there, and showing them that they really have a chance if they work hard enough, so I think it’s great for him.”

With the vast improvement Cheechoo has made in the last three years, he feels confident that the only place to go, is up. “I want to be the best player that I can possibly be, every year I work as hard as I can during the summer. Hopefully it’ll turn into something positive on the ice. I’m off to a good start this year, so I’m definitely looking to keep it going. You never know what’s going to happen each year, so I think as long as I work hard, good things will happen.”

Cheech, as his friends call him, feels that being a part of the San Jose Sharks is like being a member of a large extended family. “You spend so much time around them, you pretty much see each other every day.” His closest friend on the team is Jim Fahey, who is almost the same age. They were the youngest guys on the team last year, and were dealing with some of the things rookies have to deal with while trying to make the jump from the minors to the NHL. This helped Cheechoo grow as a player and as a person.

In order to chase one’s dream of becoming a professional hockey player, there has to be a certain number of sacrifices. Sending Cheechoo to Timmins to pursue his career at 14 was possibly the most important sacrifice his parents made for him.

“To have their support and to have them 100 per cent behind me meant a lot,” Cheechoo says. “They came out whenever they could to watch me play. Knowing that I had their support really got my confidence up.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t make it back to Moose Factory as much as he’d like because of his off-ice training. Whenever he does make it back, the reception is always warm. “It’s pretty nice, everybody knows who I am, and they like to say hello and tell me how proud they are, but at the same time they try to give me my space.”

He realizes that a lot of people are cheering for him, and following his every move. When he made the NHL, he became only the second Cree (Fred Saskamoose who played for the Blackhawks back in the 50s was the first) to make it to the big leagues.

There are a lot of adoring youngsters who watch him on TV, hoping he’s not the last.

Cheechoo had these words of encouragement for them: “Anything is possible if you want it bad enough, and you work hard enough for it.”