Johnathon Cheechoo: San Jose’s next Shark?

He is the son of Mervin and Caroline Cheechoo of Moose Factory and by October 10 he could very well be the next left-winger for the San Jose Sharks in the NHL. At 22 years of age, six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, Jonathan Cheechoo is now training in California, hoping to break into the top four or five offense lines. Drafted as the Sharks’ second round pick in 1998 at the tender age of 18, he has become only the second Cree to be signed by an NHL team (Fred Saskamoose became the first back in the 1950s when he played for the Blackhawks). Jonathan has spent the last two years playing in the farm system, the American minor league that prepares the younger ones for the big time.

“Cheech,” as his teammates call him, has spent this time working on his defense and his physical game, and he says that he’s improved a lot in both areas. He has also continued to prove that he’s good with the puck and can score, something that has never been a problem. All this is why he was called up from Cleveland in April to try for a spot as a left-winger, although he was a right-winger, he has proven he can play both. Jonathan is listed as the top prospect for the Sharks, having come a long way from the backyard rink in Moose Factory that his father used to make for him.

Jonathan began skating at the age of three and has had the NHL dream since the age of five, something he actively put into motion at the age of 14 when he moved to Timmons. The lack of leagues and the fact that hockey scouts didn’t venture too far north made the move a necessary step to get noticed. From Timmons Jonathan went to Kapuskasing, then to Kitchener, where he was drafted into the Canadian Hockey League by Belleville, and it was from Belleville that the Sharks drafted him. He played another two years in Belleville before signing a three-year contract with the Sharks, and he has spent the past couple years waiting for this chance.

While playing in the American Hockey League, he made the all-star team both years – with 46 points last year and 36 points in 31 games the previous year. He was even listed on the playoff roster for the Sharks this past year, as a backup just in case, but didn’t see any ice time. Jonathan also had the opportunity to play with Team Indigenous in Tempere, Finland in 2000. The Universal Players Tournament featured some of the best under-20 year old players from Russia, Europe, Canada and the United States. Team Indigenous consisted of Native players from across the country and placed fifth out of 12 teams; Jonathan was the top point getter for the team.

Perhaps one of the biggest honors for Jonathan was having his number-45 Sharks jersey presented to the Hockey Hall of Fame as the first member of the Moose Cree First Nation to sign an NHL contract. Jonathan still seems a little in awe of being in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is nothing if not humble and gracious and grateful. He’s enjoying the ride so far but keeping his feet firmly on the ground. He says his parents and family are one of the main reasons for his success; he stays in regular contact with them. They brought him up with a strong faith and it’s something Jonathan keeps very close to heart.

His parents now live in Sudbury and trek down to see him in action a couple of times a year. The most difficult obstacle thus far has been the different lifestyles and cultures. He used to hunt every season and fish, now hockey season conflicts with hunting season, but he still gets back to fish every summer. Jonathan says that this is just one of the sacrifices he has had to make to pursue his dream. He says that if he doesn’t make it this year, the most valuable lesson he learned is to be more responsible on and off the ice, that he can’t just be a one-dimensional player. For now he says, “the most exciting part about it is just playing in the NHL. Everybody wants their name on the Stanley Cup, that’s what every kid dreams about.” When asked where he’ll be in 10 years, Jonathan responded, “still be playing in the league, playing for me.” Words from the wise though, it’s good to have an end to journey towards, but it’s the journey in the end that matters.