Cheechoo had vision of NHL stardom

Of all the stories in the NHL in 2005-06 — increased goal scoring and attendance, the sensational rookie battle between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the surprising Carolina Hurricanes, the re-emergence of Jaromir Jagr — Jonathan Cheechoo's is perhaps the most poignant.

By Signa Butler

It's April 15 in California's Silicon Valley and Jonathan Cheechoo has just made history: he's scored his 56th goal of the season — on his fifth hat-trick, no less — to clinch the NHL's Maurice Richard Trophy as the league's top scorer.

Almost nobody noticed.

The goal, an empty-net marker in the dying seconds of the game, put the finishing touches on the San Jose Sharks's victory over their California rivals from Anaheim, 6-3. It also gave Cheechoo the highest goal total in the NHL in five seasons.

But because it happened in the wee hours, and in a hockey-indifferent corner of the United States, it hardly registered.

But it was big news in Moose Factory, Ont., the tiny Cree village on an island at the bottom of James Bay where Cheechoo began his hockey career.

Of all the stories in the NHL in 2005-06 — increased goal scoring and attendance, the sensational rookie battle between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the surprising Carolina Hurricanes, the re-emergence of Jaromir Jagr — Cheechoo's is perhaps the most poignant.

Prophecy fulfilled

It couldn't have been written any better. A native Canadian from a remote northern community becomes one of the NHL's most prolific goal scorers in the sunshine and sandy beaches of California.

But in fact, this story has been told before.

That Cheechoo is starring for the San Jose Sharks is almost prophetic.When Cheechoo was in grade seven, he wrote an essay for school about what he'd be doing when he grew up.

He wrote many things in that essay – that he would have millions of dollars, a helicopter with a heliport – and as for what he would be doing, he wrote that he would be an NHL player with the San Jose Sharks.

San Jose may seem like a strange team for a kid from northern Ontario to want to play for, but Cheechoo had his reasons. For one, his uncle had given him a Sharks jacket as a gift and second, the expansion Sharks had just drafted Cheechoo's favourite hockey player at the time, Pat Falloon.

Over a decade after that visionary school project, here is Cheechoo, sporting the familiar teal uniform he dreamed of wearing years before.

'Still sinking in'

The 2005-06 NHL season was a breakout one for Cheechoo.

His 56 goals were the most the in NHL since Pavel Bure's 59 in 2001, whilehis prolific partnership with centre Joe Thornton created the most dangerous scoring tandem the league has seen since Mario Lemieux and Jagr.

Cheechoo's goal total doubled his previous career high and he became the third native player to score 50 goals, joining Reggie Leach and Bryan Trottier.

Whether he was firing a booming slapshot from the point or deftly redirecting a shot through his legs, it seemed like Cheechoo scored every time he touched the puck.

His 11 game-winning goals led the league and his 24 power-play markers ranked second. When a game is on the line, "Cheech," as he's known to his teammates, can find the net.

Now his name is on the same trophy as some of the game's natural goal scorers, including Bure, Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovachuk.

"I never really imagined it, but it's amazing," Cheechoo said. "A lot of guys who I have a lot of respect for when I was growing up have got their names on that trophy. It's still sinking in."

For his performance this season, the Sharks rewarded Cheechoo with a five-year, $15-million US contract extension that begins in July.

Passion ignited by hockey hero

But the transition from the traditional life of a Cree community to the big bucks and big pressures of pro hockey didn't come easily.

After spending his youth playing on backyard ponds and travelling to minor league games by snowmobile, Cheechoo's hockey road took a different turn after a chance meeting with Ted Nolan — an Ojibwa and former NHL player and coach — at a hockey school in Moose Factory when Cheechoo was 12.

Nolan immediately saw potential in the youngster.

"In order to get to the National Hockey League, he had to make some tough choices to leave home," Nolan told CBC.

"I remember talking to the parents about 'you should get this kid out to a place where people can see him.' And the family and the community really supported him and got him out and the rest is history."

Path to the pros

Cheechoo left home at 14 to play bantam hockey in Timmins, Ont., about 300 kilometres away. It was a difficult time for the soft-spoken teen and his close-knit family.

"It was really tough for the whole family," Cheechoo's father Mervin told CBC. "I remember him taking off for the first time on a plane and we all sat there and waited for the plane to take off and it did and someone started crying and we all started crying. It was pretty tough to see him go."

Cheechoo would cry himself to sleep at night and spend hours on the phone with his family, who provided a calming and supportive influence.

He moved on to play in the Ontario Hockey League with the Belleville Bulls, showing enough promise to be drafted 29th overall by the San Jose Sharks in 1998. He might have been a first-round selection, but the big knock against Cheechoo in those days was his skating.

Some scouts said he skated as fast going forward as some prospects did backwards.

He did his time in the minors, playing in Lexington, Ky., and Cleveland, Ohio– not necessarily the natural starting point for a future 50-goal scorer, but in some ways it was the best place for him to be. Cheechoo was away from the spotlight and in an environment where he could improve his skating skills, groom his booming slapshot and gain the confidence and poise of an NHLer.

At last, a time to shine

When he finally suited up with the teal and white in San Jose, he was put on a checking line with gritty veterans Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton.The pair taught Cheechoo to be defensively responsible and not to underestimate the finer points of the game, such as positioning on the forecheck and the proper time to take a breather.

With their tutelage and his own hard work, he developed into a solid third-line forward. He had a breakout year in the 2003-04 season when he scored 28 goals as the Sharks made it to the Western Conference finals.

Not wanting to risk the rust of the NHL lockout, Cheechoo took the opportunity last year to work on his skating in the Swedish Elite League, where he played 20 games for Jonkoping.

All of the work paid off with his career-high season (he also finished in the top-10 in league scoring).

"I still can't believe it … Here's a guy who had to develop into a 50-goal scorer [in the minors]. The other guys on the list just appeared, and you waited for them to ripen on the tree. It's Brett Hull all over again," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said

Whether Cheechoo can match the numbers Hull put up in his 18 NHL seasons remains to be seen, but no one doubts his sniping abilities.

"To see what he's doing, everyone is glued to the TV now, especially in First Nations communities across Canada and across North America," said Nolan, now coach of the Moncton Wildcats, champions of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"It's a big thing.What Wayne Gretzky is to Canada is like what Cheechoo is to us."

With files from Associated Press