Strong Family Ties Have Helped Make Cheechoo An NHLer
October 20, 2005
Jonathan Cheechoo has quickly become a fan favorite at HP Pavilion. Part of it is due to his 28 goals last season which tied Patrick Marleau for the team lead. Part is a result of his “cool” sounding last name, which quickly turns to a drawn out call for “Cheech” when his play dazzles the fans. A portion could be due to the story he wrote when he was 12 saying how he wanted to play for the Sharks. However, the biggest part of the equation might just be that the fans can relate to him.
Not many Silicon Valley residents grew up on a reservation and hunted in the traditional ways of Native Americans, but similar to the people he plays in front of, Cheechoo knows that if he works hard enough, the job will get done.
Most NHL players were provided a natural ability that helped them reach an elite level. “Cheech” has considerable natural ability, however, some players have to work harder than others and Cheechoo would definitely fit that mold.
That Cheechoo was selected 29th overall showed he had talent. He led Belleville to the Memorial Cup, including posting an amazing five-goal performance in the deciding Game 7 of the OHL Championship. Yet there were reasons he was selected just outside the first round. The slapshot may have been NHL ready, but the conditioning was not.
“He had to address his fitness level and he committed to being here one summer,” said Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson. “He really changed his body. That helped him improve in every other area. It increased his ability in the speed game and his overall development. He can play any style on any rink at any time.”
Cheechoo’s hard work is apparent during play whether it is falling to the ice to corral a loose puck or mucking it up in the corners in a one-on-one battle.
“Whether it’s the playoffs or an exhibition game, you know he is going to bring it,” said Wilson. “He just loves the game. He truly wants to be a high-end player.”
Even though Cheechoo had improved physically, he still had to translate that to the ice and that needed to be done in the American Hockey League, not in the NHL. Cheechoo had spent two seasons in the minors before finally getting a taste of Sharks hockey. Yet it was during Wilson’s tenure as director of pro development and spending time in Cleveland that he knew Cheechoo would become the player he is today.
“When I saw him go back to Cleveland and how he played then, I knew he was not going to be denied,” said Wilson. “He simply worked harder. If he’s being held back, he’ll burst through the doors.”
And hard work seems to be a theme that follows Cheechoo.
Nearly 100 people from Moose Factory showed up for the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, displaying the family atmosphere Cheechoo grew up with extends well beyond the home and bloodlines.
“He has a tremendous amount of respect for his mom and dad,” said Wilson. “With Cheech, what you see is what you get. He knows not to cut corners and you can credit that to his family.”
Cheechoo grew up in Moose Factory surrounded by grandparents, multiple aunts and uncles and numerous cousins. Whether it’s his immediate family, or his extended family unit, family is an undeniable force in Cheechoo’s life.
When the Sharks season ends, Cheechoo heads back to Ontario where he lives with his parents who are now in Sudbury to be near his younger brother (who was drafted by Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League). From there he travels north to Moose Factory. Unlike many small town kids who aim to leave, Cheechoo is happiest when family is around.
“I like to spend time with them,” said Cheechoo. “I left when I was pretty young to play hockey, so it is good to go back.”
In order to reach the NHL, Cheechoo and his family recognized he needed to leave the island where Moose Factory sits. No matter how hard it would be emotionally.
“We are pretty tight, so it was hard, but I had an uncle in Timmons (where Cheechoo initially played), so that helped,” said Cheechoo. “He went to all my games. That first month was tough. I just missed being around my family. But I made a decision to try and make it in hockey and my parents supported me. It was probably a lot tougher on my mom, but she and my dad had to leave Moose Factory to go to high school, so they understood and that made things easier on me.”
Most close families are lucky to see each other once a week, but with Cheechoo’s extended family, relatives were constantly around during his youth.
“I would always go to my grandparents and there was always an aunt or uncle there,” said Cheechoo. “It helps growing up in a small community. We were so isolated, so you couldn’t just get up and go. The island is not that big. You could probably walk across it in half an hour.”
For those needing a refresher course, Moose Factory is on island in Canada’s Hudson Bay and the best way to reach the town is via boat after more than a full day’s drive from Toronto.
That type of closeness taught everyone to take care of each other.
“If one person killed a moose, everyone got a piece of it,” said Cheechoo.
Hunting was not just a sport for the Cheechoo family - it was a way of life. Food was available via traditional means, but being in a remote part of Canada, it had a high cost associated with it.
“Hunting is big for us being that food is so expensive,” said Cheechoo. “Hunting provided a lot of the diet. We would go to the same spot each spring and stay out for about three weeks. Most suppers were from what we shot. In the spring we’d hunt Canadian Geese. I started going hunting when I was eight, but I would go out with everyone when I was younger. Then, we would mostly just go retrieve the geese and be taught how to do things like fixing up the camp.”
Cheechoo’s parents have made it to San Jose, but he is hoping his grandparents can make it to Silicon Valley this season.
“My grandpa, grandma and my other grandma made it to a game in Buffalo,” said Cheechoo. “It was an eight-hour drive, a five-hour train and then another one-and-a-half hour drive. The family gave my grandparents a trip for their 50th wedding anniversary, so hopefully they can make it here this year. Grandma doesn’t like to fly and grandpa doesn’t like to leave Moose Factory.”
That isn’t a major problem for Cheechoo who still enjoys returning to Moose Factory. In an age where most small town kids are looking moving towards bigger cities, Cheechoo still enjoys the good life of Moose Factory. Although, he hopes the return trip this year will be delayed until after a long Stanley Cup run in May.
On the hockey side, Cheechoo sat atop the Sharks list of goal scorers in 2003-04 and his future looks even brighter.
“His best hockey is ahead of him,” said Wilson.
That is good news for Sharks fans and tough news for opposing goalies.
Kind of prophetic of Doug Wilson. :)
Finding his way in San Jose
VANCOUVER — Jonathan Cheechoo can still remember those first days away from home, away from his family, a 14-year-old kid crying himself to sleep most nights in a stranger's home.
His dad also remembers those nights. Mervin Cheechoo often cried himself to sleep too. As did Jonathan's mom, Carol Anne. There would be more tears spilled whenever their son used one of the calling cards his dad gave him and he dialled home to tell his parents that's where he really wanted to be.
“Those calls weren't easy,” Mervin recalled the other day. “There were always lots of tears and I'd say, ‘Jonathan, if you want to come home, come home. It's up to you.' But by the end of the conversation he'd always say, ‘No, I'm going to stick it out. I'll be okay.' ”
Mervin laughs. “Turns out it was a good decision.”
There have been lots of great stories in the NHL this season. The return to form of Jaromir Jagr. The brilliance of Alexander Ovechkin. The greatness of Sid the Kid. But there hasn't been a warmer one than that of Jonathan Cheechoo, the Cree Indian from Moose Factory, Ont., who Thursday night scored his 52nd and 53rd goals of the season.
As of yesterday morning, Mr. Cheechoo was second in the goal-scoring race, one goal behind Mr. Jagr with two games to go for both players in the schedule. His San Jose Sharks, meantime, were fifth in the Western Conference and riding a hot streak heading into the playoffs.
While the revival of Joe Thornton's career in a Sharks uniform has garnered most of the attention around the team, it's been impossible to ignore the mind-blowing year his triggerman has had. Mr. Thornton and Mr. Cheechoo clicked from the moment the former Bruins centre arrived in San Jose in a Nov. 30 trade last year.
The one statistic that best illustrates the role Mr. Thornton has played in Mr. Cheechoo's success is this: Of Mr. Cheechoo's 53 goals, 46 were scored after Mr. Thornton's arrival. You could also argue that Mr. Cheechoo has had almost as great an impact on Mr. Thornton's remarkable season.
If Mr. Cheechoo doesn't convert Mr. Thornton's passes, Mr. Thornton doesn't get many of his assists. As of Friday, Mr. Thornton had 94 of them (36 of them off of goals by Mr. Cheechoo). Combined with his 28 goals, Mr. Thornton was tied with Mr. Jagr for the league leader in scoring.
Mr. Thornton, however, prefers to push away any attention in the direction of his soft-spoken teammate.
“It's a great story,” Mr. Thornton says. “And one that should be told.”
And a few lockers down in the visitors' dressing room at GM Place, Jonathan Cheechoo, 25, is talking about his unlikely journey, the one that took him from his tiny native village of 1,600 on a remote island in James Bay, a half-hour snowmobile ride from Moosonee, a 15-hour train ride north from Toronto.
And a world away from the Shark Tank, the glittering home of San Jose's NHL team that sits amid the million-dollar homes and high-tech office complexes of California's Silicon Valley.
“When I first left home to go play bantam in Timmins I didn't have a clue about anything,” Mr. Cheechoo says. “I had to do laundry and everything and I'd never done it before because my mom had always done it.
“The first time I did it all my whites turned blue. I tried to fix it by washing them with bleach but I forgot to add water. It was just pure bleach and it destroyed all my clothes.”
Being away from his family never got easier. Not when he was 15 or 16 or 17 playing in the Ontario Hockey League for the Belleville Bulls. He never stopped missing his parents and brother and sister, never stopped missing the hunting trips he used to take with Mervin and all Mervin's brothers and Mervin's dad, George.
Whenever he got a few days off at Christmas he'd make the long trek home, even if it was for only a day or two. When it came time to head back to the big city there were always more tears.
“Yeah,” he recalls. “Christmas was always the hardest. It never got any easier.”
Jonathan Cheechoo will tell you that he wouldn't be where he is today without his parents. Without Ted Nolan too.
Mr. Nolan, aboriginal himself, attended a hockey school in Moose Factory when Jonathan was 13. Then a coach with the Buffalo Sabres, Mr. Nolan saw some talent in the kid but he knew no one would ever see it if he stayed on the reserve. It was Mr. Nolan who encouraged the Cheechoos to allow their son to move to Timmins to play bantam.
“There are a lot of great native hockey players,” Jonathan Cheechoo says in an interview. “But so many are reluctant to leave their families and communities. Our families are very close and tight knit. A lot of kids have a hard time surviving outside them. Or they'll leave and then come home after a month.
“That's why you probably don't see as many native people in the NHL. It's not that there aren't lots of talented native players, there are. They just find it hard to leave home to get the kind of exposure and training and competition you need to get to have any realistic chance of making it in the NHL.”
Mervin Cheechoo agrees. Now a pastor of a native church in Sudbury, he also works for Rising Up, a counselling group for aboriginals.
He believes making that break from families is sometimes essential if native kids are going to learn how to handle adversity and face the many different types of hardship that life throws at you, whether you're a hockey player or a teacher.
Some of the adversity his son faced came in the form of prejudice and racist taunts that would be hurled at him in different hockey arenas.
“I'd ask him about that a lot,” he says. “It's sad to say but it's a reality of the world we live in, even today. We never got into specifics about what people were saying, I just told him to always be proud of who he was. I told him that people who spoke that way often didn't feel good about themselves so needed to put other people down in order to make themselves feel better.
“I told him it was not his problem but theirs. We tried to instill in him to have pride in his native heritage. Never be embarrassed by that.”
By the time Jonathan Cheechoo was playing major junior hockey in Belleville, bus loads of friends and family would often make the trek down from Moose Factory, a hockey-crazy town if there ever was one, to watch him play. They would all hang around after the game to talk to him. The children of the village who were along for the ride regarded him as a hero.
He was just 18. He was happy to be a good kid, to keep his nose clean, to never embarrass his parents, family or tribe, but being a role model seemed a bit much.
“Back then it was a bit of a burden,” says the younger Mr. Cheechoo, who would be drafted 29th overall by the Sharks in the 1998 Entry Draft. “Now I'm a little older, more mature, and I don't mind. I like talking to kids, meeting groups of school child from native schools like I will today.
“If somehow my presence makes them feel better about their lives, their chances, whatever, hey, I don't mind talking to them. I consider it an honour, really.”
Sharks coach Ron Wilson has been around enough 50 goal scorers to know what they look like and think like and act like. There was Pavel Bure in Vancouver, Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya in Anaheim and Peter Bondra in Washington.
“They all made it look so easy,” Mr. Wilson says about the ability of those players to score goals.
“Cheech [Cheechoo] makes it look so goddamn hard.”
Even Mr. Cheechoo acknowledges he wasn't born with the natural gifts of a goal scorer. He's got where he is through hard work. Everyone says that. When Mr. Wilson first saw Mr. Cheechoo he figured he would be a third-liner in the NHL with the potential — potential — of maybe one day sneaking onto a second line somewhere.
“You see him and he stumbles around and he looks off balance but he never falls down,” Mr. Wilson says. “But then you see that drive and hunger to score. All those guys I've had who scored 50 goals had that same thing, that something in their eyes as they got closer to that red light.
“There's a drive they have that I can't explain, maybe they can't either. They want to score so bad they'll do anything.”
Doug Wilson, the Sharks GM, says the most impressive thing about Mr. Cheechoo's season hasn't been the number of goals he's scored, but the number that were game winners.
“That to me is the most impressive thing,” Mr. Wilson says. “When the game is on the line he's come through.”
Joe Thornton can't explain something as real as the chemistry two hockey players sometimes develop. He can't explain why he and Mr. Cheechoo — who recently signed a five-year, $15-million (U.S.) contract extension — have made magic this season, but he does offer these observations about his line mate.
“There are a couple of things,” Mr. Thornton says. “He never misses the net with his shot and that's huge. He's also a right hand shot and I like playing with right hand shots. I never catch him off guard with a pass; he's always waiting for it. And he usually always gets the meat of his blade on the puck and he usually fires it up top in one of the corners. As a goalie it's pretty tough to stop the guy.”
It's the spring hunt in Moose Factory.
The schools are closed and the boys and their fathers and their uncles and grandparents and just about everyone in town has left for their hunting camps. They are after geese — as many as they can get.
“Jonathan's Grandpa [George] got two yesterday,” Beatrice Cheechoo, Jonathan's grandmother, says over the phone from Moose Factory.
“Jonathan loved to go hunting with his grandpa. He used to tell me that when he finished high school he was going to live in the bush in Moose Factory and hunt all the time. When I think about that now I just laugh.”
She is a proud grandma. She watched Jonathan score his 50th goal on television thanks to her satellite dish. She screamed and screamed. She wanted to get up and dance but her 72-year-old knees wouldn't allow it.
She turned on CBC radio the other day to hear two kids from Moose Factory talking about Jonathan and how he has become a role model for them.
“Most of the kids in town just do drugs and alcohol,” she quotes the boys as saying.
Chief Patricia Faries, the first female chief of the Moose Cree tribe in Moose Factory, acknowledges there is a lot of social dysfunction in her village. There is a lot of drug and alcohol abuse among kids and adults. She says in a telephone interview that the impact of Jonathan Cheechoo's achievements on the community cannot be overstated. “Because it all becomes real for the kids,” Chief Faries says. “It shows them that anything is possible and not just in hockey. It shows them that we weren't meant to abuse drugs and booze, that there are other things out there to pursue.
“It's about having a dream and chasing it. It's real with Jonathan, we're seeing it. It's all positive and healthy and can only help us here. He's a star and he's from Moose Factory.
“Who would have imagined?”
*weeps* And he has 11 GWG now. :) Ahhh, baby!Cheech destroying his clothes! And being a role model and stuff. *sighs*