They came, they saw, they cheered, and in the end they jumped into their vehicles for the long ride home to reflect on their encounter with a young Cree role model and the only Eenouch hockey player in the NHL.
On January 12, over 100 youngsters and adults alike made the trek from six of the nine communities to see Jonathan Cheechoo and the San Jose Sharks lace up against the powerhouse Ottawa Senators.
Hailing from Moose Factory, the 25-year-old Cheechoo was a huge hit once the throng of people got to see him, get their photos taken with him and get his autograph.
His audience waited patiently at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier until finally, after missing him at the Sharks optional practice, the kids met their idol. “Stay true to yourself and remember, if you work hard enough you can do anything you put your mind to,” Cheechoo told the adoring crowd.
After signing autographs and giving an inspirational speech, Cheechoo sped off to face the Senators in nearby Kanata.
The kids spent the morning watching the Cheechoo-less Sharks practice and also got a chance to see the Senators get ready for the big Saturday night game. After the Sens’ practice, Ottawa winger Brandon Bochenski spoke a few words of encouragement to them.
The visit to Ottawa wasn’t the first for kids from Eeyou Istchee. Gord Hudson, Regional Director of Youth Healing Services in Mistissini, has collaborated in the past with the Mistissini band council and other bands to send the kids to sporting activities that boost their self-esteem. Previous trips included twice visiting the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Renegades. They are also looking to head further west and see a Toronto Raptors basketball game.
“I’ve been up there for close to three years and I think if they can dedicate themselves as much as Jonathan has, I think the possibilities are endless in how many players of Cree heritage can get to the NHL,” Hudson told the Nation. “It’s a matter of dedication and drive.”
By the looks on their faces, old and young alike were deeply inspired.
“It’s great to see a guy like Jonathan come and see them just so they can see a famous guy playing in the NHL; so the kids can meet him,” said Jim Macleod, owner of Macleod Exploration in Mistissini. “It’s a good thrill for the kids. He’s a great role model for the kids, a lot of them play hockey and to see this man play professionally in the NHL must be quite nice for them,” he said.
“You always want to meet a pro athlete and when you get a chance like that it’s something you’ll always remember. I’m sure my grandchildren will always talk about it. I see a lot of talent in the youth and I’m sure we’re going to get some more coming up, just give them the chance. Like he (Cheechoo) said you have to really work hard and put your mind to it and stay out of other stuff and you’ll make it.”
The game itself was a hit. San Jose is battling for a playoff spot and they played it, working the boards and taking the body against the top-ranked Senators hard. In the end, they shut them out 2-0. Cheechoo picked up a third period assist on the Sharks’ second goal.
He also had numerous chances, including a breakaway, but it looked like his nerves – or legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek – got the better of him.
Cheechoo hopes the trip pays dividends in Eeyou Istchee. “Hopefully it shows them that with a little hard work and dedication, anything is possible,” he said. “We have a lot of talented and smart people up there and hopefully our youth can start reaching more of their potential.”
His fans agreed. “I’m really happy to see him because I’m a big fan,” said Mistissini’s Whitney Blacksmith. “He’s my favorite player.” Her sister Roberta agreed. “I get to see an NHL player and it’s cool that he’s Native,” she said.
Some of the older females in attendance liked him for other reasons.
“He’s very hot! He’s gorgeous!” said Christina Kitty. “Kids look up to him, Crees are really big into hockey, they love it; all our kids play and they want to grow up to be like him. I’m hoping that the Cree boys are going to go for it and try to accomplish what he has. We’re rooting for more Crees to play in the NHL and hopefully there will be more like him.”
The trip cost about $22,000, some of which was raised by the youth themselves.
“I used some of the funds through my budget and to make the youth have ownership of the activity, they went out and did fundraising,” said a jubilant Hudson. “They cut wood for Elders, went on a caribou hunt for the Elders’ home, they worked in Mistissini for the New Year’s celebration, and up in Chisasibi they did some work for Elders as well. They actively participated in getting the funding so they could go on the trip. The kids raised $12,000, and another $10,000 was raised through Youth Healing Services.”
Hudson was quick to thank the other people who helped make it happen.
“Joe Neeposh, Gloria Blackned Coon Come, Pierrette Coon Come, they all helped with fundraising ideas, and putting the plan into motion,” he said.
While growing up, Hudson’s favorite hockey player was Bobby Orr. He’s hoping that trips like this one will inspire the youth like the Bruins’ number 4 inspired him as a youngster. “Now when they watch hockey, they’re able to connect because they’ve met two players. All the kids could talk about when they got back was how Brandon went to university and how Jonathan said this and that, it was a very positive experience,” he said.
“With the words of encouragement these players gave, I hope in the short-term it’s going to do great things and in the long-term as well.”