You wouldn’t know it by looking at the standings, but the Cree Nation Bears Midget AA hockey team has had a lot of positives come from the current season, during which they have accumulated a record of 3-23-2.
Yes, that record is good enough for last place in the Norbord Midget AA League, but for Bears coach Steve Cheechoo winning is not only determined by the numbers in the standings, it is also measured by his players’ commitment to the game, school, teamwork and improving themselves.
Originally from Moose Factory, Ontario, Cheechoo now resides in Mistissini and has been involved with First Nations hockey for more years than he can remember. In addition to coaching the Bears, Cheechoo has also coached the Eastern Door & North team at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championship as well as being active at off-season hockey camps in communities across the James Bay region.
“We have won this league in the past but for a lot of years we have been struggling,” said Cheechoo, about the Bears’ on-ice troubles. “I just try to keep it positive, keep them going strong and going hard right ‘til the end.
“Sometimes, life does not go the way you want it to. But we have to make the best of what we are doing.”
Cheechoo faces a number of challenges coaching young teen players. From doing what is required to safeguard them from the negative influences of drugs and alcohol, to enforcing league rules that mandate that all players must be in school to be eligible to play, Cheechoo has his hands full.
“Over all the years, I’ve done what I’ve done for the youth. To keep them off the street, to help them with struggles they have off-ice with alcohol and drugs. To help them do something positive,” said Cheechoo. “I’d rather see the kids on the ice then out there alone doing something that they shouldn’t be doing.”
What those players need to be doing right now is preparing for the playoffs. Despite the Bears’ losing record, the team will still qualify for the playoffs. Before that happens, the club must complete two games on the road versus the Amos Comets and the Val-d’Or Apollos before returning home to Mistissini to face their first-round playoff opponents.
Playoffs start on the weekend of February 18-19. At press time, it had not been determined who the Bears will face in the playoffs. But, it is clear that the team will have the benefit of home ice, at least early on.
If home-ice advantage is not sufficient motivation for the young Bears players to play Cinderella during the playoff season, perhaps news of Coach Cheechoo’s future plans will be.
“It is possible this is my final year coaching,” revealed Cheechoo. “I have been doing this for many years and we need someone to step up and take over – maybe someone younger who can bring something different to the team. Sometimes when you’ve been coaching for many years, you need to step back and take a break.”
But that does not mean that Cheechoo will leave hockey entirely.
“I’ll be helping out here and there,” he said. “My aim is to still be involved with minor hockey, to work with the kids, to build things from the grassroots.
“I want to teach them what discipline is and when they get older they will realize what it takes to win, on the ice and in life,” continued Cheechoo, before pausing for a moment.
“But you never know. Sometimes, the good Lord will give you a different direction. You never know where He will take you.”
With any luck, He will take the underdog Bears on a deep playoff run and allow this passionate hockey coach to exit from behind the bench on a high note.