A couple of years ago, I sat in a diner in Montreal next to couple who hailed from a small town in Saskatchewan. They told me about their son. He had needed a more rural life, after struggling to adapt to life in the “big city” of Saskatoon, population about 250,000.
For many, it’s difficult to adapt to life in the big city when coming from a small town. Jonathan Cheechoo came from the Hudson Bay island community of Moose Factory, Ontario. Moose Factory is accessible by boat in summer, ice road in winter and the occasional helicopter, subject to weather. The local population is a few thousand. It is a long way from anywhere, in both time and space.
Cheechoo always had a “fish out of water” characteristic about him. San Jose has a population of a million people, in a metropolitan area of seven million. Becoming a star in this community is not expected of a member of the Cree First Nations tribe hailing from Moose Factory.
Earlier this month, Cheechoo announced his retirement as a professional hockey player. His career will be honored and celebrated by the Sharks on Saturday.
In so many respects, Cheechoo was the earnest and honest underdog. It’s easy to root for the underdog. It is also an important part of both Cheechoo’s legend and legacy. While his story has a fish out of water quality, on the ice he was a phenomenon.
Cheechoo’s NHL Hockey Life
Jonathan Cheechoo was selected in the first round, 29th overall, in the 1998 draft. Roughly 10 percent of his hometown made the 16-hour trek to Buffalo to join him. Some criticized the Sharks for taking a player whose skating was, well, not consistent with this high a pick.
In the end, it was Cheechoo’s modest skating ability, coupled with injuries, which derailed his NHL career. He last played for the San Jose Sharks in 2009 and it was the last in a series of less memorable seasons for the Sharks winger. A brief and even less memorable stint with the Ottawa Senators ended his NHL career in 2010. He finished having played in 560 regular season and playoff games.
Embedded in these games, there was a time where Cheechoo blazed as one of the brightest stars among the Sharks and in the NHL. To this day, Cheechoo holds a number of Sharks records and remains the lone player in team history to capture the Rocket Richard Trophy, honoring the league’s top goal scorer. It didn’t hurt that there was also a “wow factor” in his game.
Considering the Sharks employed Patrick Marleau for 19 seasons and over 500 goals, that Cheechoo holds the team records for most goals in a season (56), most hat tricks in a season (5) and most career hat tricks (9) suggests he was indeed, something special.
A Brief History of Cheechoo Time
Cheechoo was not a natural skater, but he was a scorer. He had determination, a natural shot from in close and terrific hand-eye coordination. Let me repeat the part about determination, because it is a theme in his life – the essence of both the person and player.
Two NHL seasons in, he was on his way to a good career. Then came the strike season. Soon after play resumed, the Sharks made a trade.
The best thing a pure scorer can get is a great set-up man. Joe Thornton came to town in November 2005. Thornton played the final 58 games of the 2005-06 season in teal during which Cheechoo netted a mind-boggling 49 goals.
It is a false narrative to suggest Thornton made Cheechoo. Yes, they were great together. But there’s a reason Cheechoo holds so many team records and not other fine players who played with Thornton. These include Marleau, Joe Pavelski and even sniper Dany Heatley. Cheechoo was good in his own right. But with Thornton, Cheechoo made the leap from good to extraordinary.
Following the magical 2005-06 season, Cheechoo began to slip. It was always unlikely he’d repeat that season. But once injuries crept into the picture, his productivity began to trail off.
A Moment in Time
For me, nothing quite captures the magic Cheechoo brought to the Sharks than his finest goal. It came in the second round of the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche, Apr. 24, 2004.
I recall the fans cheering wildly. The cheers continued as the replay appeared on the big screen. But at the moment people clearly saw the between the legs move Cheechoo made, the cheering momentarily changed, replaced by an audible ‘ooooo’ which rippled through the house. Followed by even louder cheers. A transcendent moment.
Cheechoo considers this his favorite goal. But did he practice this move (5:45 mark)? Apparently not.
In Cheechoo’s journey, there was always the element of the small town improbable comes to the big city. He found NHL glory, then faded. He continued to play successfully, albeit in lesser leagues, until recently. Many will headline the Cheechoo story as the unlikely star who burned brightly and briefly, before disappearing. Some will highlight the moments of great glory. Still others will highlight the dream come true aspect. At age 12, Cheechoo wrote his dream was to become a star player for the Sharks.
But none of this is the best part of the story. Cheechoo’s story is one of human dignity. The person who, despite becoming a star, found more meaningful glory as a role model. Cheechoo persevered in the face of injury while never losing track of who he is. He takes joy and pride in his upbringing and his tribe. He takes joy and pride in being part of the San Jose community. The journey is the story. All of it. The highs, the lows and everything in between. One hopes his journey continues in new and wonderful ways, even as this chapter ends and he looks towards a new, yet to be determined path. But between his retirement and the next part of his journey, it’s time to take a moment to celebrate.
• I reviewed Ross McKeon’s fine read 100 Things Sharks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. I recommend reading the chapter covering Cheechoo, it was among the best.
• Cheechoo’s time in San Jose stint is the heart of his career. At the NHL level, he also played in Ottawa. But it’s worth noting the many other places Cheechoo called home. Kitchener, Belleville, Lexington (Kentucky), Cleveland, Binghamton, Worcester, Peoria, Oklahoma City, plus overseas play in Sweden, Zagreb (Croatia), Bratislava (Slovakia) and Minsk (Belarus).
• Cheechoo holds franchise records for HC Dinamo Minsk, including most points in a game and most power play goals in a season