The Nation had a chance recently to talk with Jonathan Cheechoo, one of the NHL’s exciting young wingers. We sat down with the rising San Jose Sharks star at the Bell Centre in Montreal to get his view on many things and ask him questions about his stardom in Native circles.
The Nation: How do you feel about your season so far?
Cheechoo: My season personally has gone pretty well, but I was hoping we’d be in a little bit of a better position. We’d like to be in the playoffs right now, sitting in the top eight teams. But we’re on a roll now and if we can keep this going we can climb into there.
The Nation: If you could improve something in your game, what would it be?
Cheechoo: You can never be satisfied with the way you’re playing. I hope I can improve a little bit of everything and hopefully I’ll continue to improve my overall game. I’ve been working on my speed and my conditioning for the last five years or so and I think I’ve gotten that up to a pretty good level, but I always want to keep improving everything.
The Nation: Who was your favorite hockey player growing up?
Cheechoo: Jari Kurri. I liked the way he could score. He was a great player and he was good defensively, he wasn’t just a scorer.
The Nation: What are your goals for this season?
Cheechoo: My only goal is to win the Stanley Cup, that’s the only time I’ll be happy. Statistics-wise, whatever happens, happens, although I’d like to improve on my stats from last year. I come in every year wanting to improve on what I did the year before and obviously win the Stanley Cup.
The Nation: How big is your life now from before you made the NHL?
Cheechoo: I travel a lot more now. I get to see a lot of cities like New York and L.A. That’s pretty neat, I always wanted to do that. Last year with the lockout I got to go to Sweden and I went to Italy after I was done to see Rome. I can go to a few places that I’ve always wanted to go see, I think that’s the main difference.
The Nation: If you could play in another city, which would it be?
Cheechoo: Vancouver, they were my favorite team growing up.
The Nation: What was the overall experience like in Sweden?
Cheechoo: It was pretty good overall, I had a good time. The people there are very friendly, very nice. It’s almost like being in Canada, the atmosphere, the weather and everything. I enjoyed my time.
The Nation: Is it similar to the NHL atmosphere?
Cheechoo: No, it’s a lot different. For one thing there are maybe 6,000 seats in most of the arenas. The fans are really wild; they get right into it. There is a guy who has a drum and they get going in the stands and they get real noisy. It’s a lot different from here. They do that while the play is going on. If you have the fans on your side you have a big advantage over there. And if not, they just keep pounding on you when things are going down.
The Nation: What are the biggest reasons for your success?
Cheechoo: They told me when I was younger that I needed to get into better shape to make it up here, so by getting into better shape I improved my speed. I also do a lot of sprinting in the summer and it improves my speed. I do that every year to try to improve upon the season before.
The Nation: If you had to name one person who inspired you to get to this point, who would it be?
Cheechoo: Ted Nolan. He came up and did a hockey school in Moose Factory when I was 12 years old. Plus I knew about him before and saw what he accomplished. When he won coach of the year award it was pretty amazing. Not many people have done that so just to see the success he had drove me to chase my dreams.
The Nation: How do you stay in touch with your Cree culture in San Jose?
Cheechoo: It’s pretty tough, but I get a lot of relatives coming down all the time. My parents make a few trips, my dad especially. I went hunting last year. I got a moose when I went back home, and 30 geese as well. I hunt as much as I can and eat as much of it as I can in Canada because I can’t take it across borders.
The Nation: What do you do in the off-season?
Cheechoo: I go back to Sudbury, where my parents live, and spend as much time with them as I can. I also go up to Moose Factory to see my relatives. I do a lot of fishing and a lot of golfing. I work out six times a week, so I get up early and do that and have the rest of the day to myself.
The Nation: What are some of the sacrifices you have to make to get to where you are now?
Cheechoo: There are a lot of sacrifices, like staying up late. You’ve got to get to bed early if you want to have a good rest. That helps just as much as working out because if you don’t have the right sleeping patterns the workouts won’t do as much for you, you won’t get as much out of it. I see a lot of the youth staying up until four in the morning. It does nothing for you; it just wears your body down. The main thing is being focused on what you want and work towards it. You have to make sacrifices; you’ve got to do whatever it takes. For me, the biggest thing was getting into shape. The talent was there, I had my hockey sense and I knew I could play, but I needed to get into the right shape and get better speed. If you really want it, you’ll make the sacrifices. If you don’t, maybe you should choose something else where you don’t have to make as many sacrifices. I think the people who really want it will make those sacrifices.
The Nation: What do you think the success you’re having in the NHL has done for Native youth?
Cheechoo: Hopefully it inspires them to do something productive with their lives. A lot of people up north love basketball or volleyball. There are opportunities for sports and for education as well. There are a few nurses, doctors and a few lawyers up there now and it shows that if they want to achieve their goals, anything is possible. I came from the same size town that they all live in. We couldn’t even get out of the community; it was a train trip to get out. Hopefully it shows them that with a little hard work and dedication, anything is possible. We have a lot of talented and smart people as well up there and hopefully our youth can start reaching more of their potential. Support from their parents is important. I had a lot of support from my parents and my family and that helped me immensely. If parents support their kids, we could see somebody playing in the NBA one day or college basketball and stuff like that.
The Nation: What kind of family support did it take for you to reach your goals?
Cheechoo: They let me leave when I was younger. I made my own choice that I wanted to pursue hockey and they knew I had to leave home to attain that goal. The main thing is support. Sometimes I’d call when I was a little down and my parents would be there and they’d encourage me along. They’d come out to see me once in awhile and that helped out. They told me that if they see me working towards my goals and working hard for it, they would always be behind me. And they’ve been behind me the whole way. Watching me when I was struggling in the minors and then finally making it up here. That’s very important to a child growing up.
The Nation: How do you prepare for game day?
Cheechoo: I usually have a meal around one and then go back to the room and get a nap in. Get up and have a little snack again before I come to the rink. I get to the rink usually about three hours before the game. I’ll hang around, tape my sticks, cut a stick and tape it all up and just get ready for the game.
The Nation: What’s the biggest difference between the old NHL and the new NHL?
Cheechoo: Less holding. I used to get held a lot when I was working the puck in the corner, now they can’t do that so it opens the ice up a little more, gives me a little more space and I get a little more time to get a shot off.
The Nation: What did you think about the new deal reached between the NHL and NHL Players Association?
Cheechoo: It was good to get a deal done. A lot of guys wanted to get back playing so I think it was a fair deal. We fought for a few things we wanted included in the deal and we pretty much got them. We gave up the cap, which I thought would never happen but it eventually did. It was just good to get hockey back for the fans too.
The Nation: So you agreed with it?
Cheechoo: Well it happened, so I have no choice to agree or not to agree. I think it’s fine. It seems to be working out all right for pretty much everybody so I have no problems with it.