If you ask young Cree hockey fans today who their hockey idol is, most will say Jonathan Cheechoo.
Born and raised in Moose Factory, Cheechoo was the first Cree player to be drafted by an NHL team when he was taken 29th overall by the San Jose Sharks at the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. In fact, the Sharks raised a lot of eyebrows that spring. The team traded the number two pick in the ’98 Draft to the Nashville Predators, who used to select David Legwand, in exchange for the number three pick and the number 29 pick, which the Sharks used to land Cheechoo.
And so, Cheechoo started his NHL career facing high expectations. But that was nothing new for Cheechoo who has managed to surpass expectations at every level of hockey he has played.
Like most kids born and raised in northern Ontario, Cheechoo started skating at a very young age on an outdoor rink that his father built each winter. But given how isolated the town of Moose Factory is, Cheechoo did not start playing organized hockey until the age of 14 when he left home to play bantam hockey in Timmins, then midget hockey in Kapuskasing and later, Junior B in Kitchener.
Cheechoo would eventually settle in Belleville, after the OHL Belleville Bulls drafted him in the first round of the 1997 OHL Priority Selection draft. Faced with high expectations, Cheechoo did not disappoint, first being selected to the 1998 OHL All-Rookie Team, and then leading the Bulls to an OHL Championship and a berth in the 1999 Memorial Cup. The Bulls would fall short of a Memorial Cup championship that year but it was clear to San Jose Sharks management that they had a special player in Cheechoo.
Before making the leap to San Jose, Cheechoo paid his dues playing in the AHL – first with the Kentucky Thoroughblades in 2000-2001, and with the Cleveland Barons the following season.
According to a 2004 NHL.com report, Cheechoo’s parents had to endure possibly the toughest road trip of all time to see their son play.
“To get to his games, Jonathan’s parents took a seven-minute ride in a motorized canoe, a five-hour train ride to Cochrane, a 10-hour drive to Toronto and then another 10-hour drive to Kentucky.”
Fortunately for Mervin and Carol Anne Cheechoo, their son’s stay in the AHL only lasted two seasons before he graduated to the big club in San Jose and set off on the road to Cree hockey fame.
Cheechoo recalls his first NHL game versus the Detroit Red Wings as perhaps his most thrilling and memorable moment. “It was something I dreamed about since I was four years old, playing in the NHL,” he recalled. “I remember my first game was against the Detroit Red Wings. I will never forget that. My first shift I lined up against Brett Hull. It was a surreal feeling.”
Cheechoo quickly solidified a spot on the Sharks roster with a 28-goal season in 2003-2004, and joined HV 71 of the Swedish Elitserien in 2004 after the NHL season was cancelled due to the now infamous lockout.
But it was during the first season back after the lockout that the hockey world took notice of Cheechoo. Playing on a line with Patrick Marleau and MVP Joe Thornton, who was acquired from the Boston Bruins early in the campaign, Cheechoo went on to score 56 goals that season to win the NHL goal-scoring title and the Maurice Richard Trophy.
When asked at the time about his feelings regarding the trade that brought him to San Jose from Boston, Thornton replied, “I’m just glad they sent me out there to play with Cheech and the Sharks.”
Cheechoo’s success that season also led to a contract extension that would secure his future – a five-year, $15 million deal and a place on the best line in hockey.
But 2005-2006 would be the last season to date that Cheechoo would play a complete 82-game schedule. Plagued by series of injuries, including a double sports hernia in 2007-2008, Cheechoo saw his offensive production drop and he was eventually shipped to the Ottawa Senators in 2009 along with Milan Michalek in the deal that sent sniper Dany Heatley to San Jose.
The trade gave Cheechoo the opportunity to get his career back on track. Something the struggling Senators desperately needed.
“I come out every year and I want to play to the best of my abilities, and I felt last year I probably didn’t do that as well as I should have,” Cheechoo said at the time in reference to his struggles on the ice and with injury the previous season. “That’s something I want to come out and show people – I can still play at a high level.”
But Cheechoo’s struggles would continue. And the Senators, entering a rebuilding phase, shipped Cheechoo to their AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators shortly after the All-Star break in 2010.
Today, Cheechoo is part of the St. Louis Blues organization, bringing veteran experience and scoring touch to the AHL Peoria Rivermen, the Blues’ top farm club. While some pundits may considered him a long shot to be called up to a Blues club that is largely built on youth, Cheechoo seems comfortable and confident in his new role.
_“It’s been going alright in Peoria. I would like to have had a better start stats wise, but overall I’ve been playing pretty well,” said Cheechoo after a recent game versus the Toronto Marlies.
_“The Blues had a lot of injuries last season and they wanted to add a little depth, and I think since I’ve come onboard I’ve made a good impression,” he added.
_“For me, I am down in the minors, I have to take care what I am doing down here. I have to play well. If I play well, and if I outplay someone in St. Louis or if someone gets hurt I have to show that I am ready and available.”
And for a change, Cheechoo appears to be in the best health he has been in for years after battling a back injury last season that limited him to just 18 goals in 55 games. This season, Cheechoo has appeared in every Rivermen game to date and while he has been limited to five goals in 19 games, his comfort level is fast returning.
“Last season I hurt my back. It was the first time I had that. But I worked with a lot of people in San Jose who helped me out and I started training in the summer and they got me back to 100%. Now I do a lot of stuff before practice that helps me avoid the issues I had last year,” he said.
“The main thing for me is for the first time I worked with a guy from Stanford to improve my speed. I wanted to improve that and I feel that I have.”
Having never been known for blazing speed, skating has always been an issue that Cheechoo has had to work on. Indeed, his 56- and 37-goal seasons came during the years after the lockout when the NHL cracked down most on obstruction and so-called “clutch & grab” hockey, enabling pure goal scorers like Cheechoo to thrive.
“Coaches are pretty smart and they always find a way to clog up the ice,” said Cheechoo. “The ‘clutch & grab’ was around before the lockout. After the lockout, things were opened up and players could use their speed a little more and that helped me a bit.”
But Cheechoo doesn’t see wholesale rule changes as the way to go. “I’m not too sure if I want to see things change in the NHL. There are changes to rules every year, but they got some pretty good people handling that.”
While Cheechoo hopes to play hockey well into his 30s, he has given some thought to what life holds for him after his playing days are over.
“I’m still pretty young; I just reached my 31st birthday. I’m feeling good, feeling strong, feeling healthy. But when that time comes, I’ll want to take a year or two off to spend some time and enjoy my family and relax a little bit,” said Cheechoo, whose wife Ashley gave birth to the couple’s first child, son Jack, this past July.
But Cheechoo also remembers the help and guidance he received as a young hockey player growing up in northern Ontario and hopes to do the same for young players when his playing days are over.
“I’d like to come and definitely help the youth up there (in the North). I know when I was young, and starting out (former NHL Coach of the Year) Ted Nolan came up and did some hockey schools. And that is something that helped me get to where I am and gave me a little guidance,” recalled Cheechoo. “Having a guy like Nolan, who had been there and done that, his advice on what path I should follow really helped. I’d like to help out the youth there. There’s a lot of aspiring hockey players coming up and I’d love to see a lot more kids from our area go further in hockey and pursue their dream.”
While Nolan was an inspiration for him as a youth, Cheechoo has no shortage of advice and inspiration for both young athletes and their parents.
“The main thing is that you gotta realize that if you’re really serious about playing a sport there are certain sacrifices you have to make. Sure I wanted to hang out with my friends all the time, but sometimes my friends were hanging out at all hours of the night. For me, I sacrificed hanging out late, so I could go to bed early,” said Cheechoo.
“What I wanted to do since I was a little kid was play hockey. So I had to sacrifice; but it paid off. Look where I am at today. And school was important. My mother was a teacher, so if I wasn’t doing well at school, I wasn’t going to be able to play hockey,” he recalled.
“And make sure your kids want to play, don’t force them to do it. If they have a love for the game they will work harder at it. And it will be something they want to do,” he said.
“The most important thing is the kid’s happiness. Some kids can’t be pushed to sports, they’re more interested in school and that’s important too.”
“But parental support is huge. Seeing my dad there at every practice. I know some parents can’t make it to every practice, but the more practices you make it to, the better. It was a huge boost for me and made me work a little bit harder. Kids want to impress their parents. And anytime they get that extra support, it will make them work harder.”
But like the old saying goes, success is part inspiration, but mostly perspiration, something Cheechoo has known since he was a boy.
“Your conditioning is huge. You can’t go into any camp, I don’t care how good you are, if you are out of shape, you are not going to do well,” states Cheechoo. “Even a guy like Joe Thornton, who probably has the most talent in the world, has to work out. Otherwise, he would not be able to do what he does on a daily basis.
“When I was growing up, my dad told me there are about a million other kids who want to make it to the NHL. The question that you have to ask yourself is ‘what are you going to do to get there, and what are you doing above and beyond what these kids are doing?’
“I was riding a bike after practice in Moose Factory when I was 13 for like half an hour, and then I’d go out and skate more on my outdoor rink. It is something where you have to put in the time. The only way you will get better is to work at it and spend the most time you possibly can on it.”
Cheechoo sums up his hockey success in simple terms.
“I wasn’t the most talented player in Moose Factory in my age group. I was one of them. I worked really hard, but there were guys who had more talent than me but who didn’t work as hard.”
While Cheechoo may still yet make it back to the NHL, there are certainly young hockey players who will benefit from his passion and counsel when the day comes that he hangs ‘em up and returns home to Moose Factory.