When he was a teen-ager playing for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, some scouts claimed that other young players could skate backwards faster than Cheechoo could skate forward. But Cheechoo believed in himself and set out to improve his skating and turn it into one of his strengths.
After being drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the 1998 Entry Draft (No. 29), critics claimed that the young Shark could only play on the offensive side of the puck. Again, he silenced his detractors and emerged as a solid defensive performer by studying the work habits of teammates Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton.
Cheechoo terrorized opposing goaltenders in his third NHL season (2005-06) and led the League with 56 goals to win the Rocket Richard Trophy. But the 29-year old native of Moose Factory, Ontario, totaled only 35 goals over the past two injury-riddled seasons and was dealt to Ottawa, along with winger Milan Michalek, in a preseason trade for Dany Heatley. Now, Cheechoo is determined to bounce back and regain the goal-scoring prowess that once rated him among the most feared marksmen in the NHL.
"It would be great to get back to that level of scoring," Cheechoo said. "It's certainly something I will strive for because when I start a season I don't set a goal of (scoring only) 10 goals. I know what I have accomplished in the past and I will strive to score as many as I can. I love scoring goals and that won't change."
What will it take?
"I put in a hard summer of work," Cheechoo said. "I feel healthy and I'm back to being in the shape I was in a couple of years ago. It's now a case of getting the confidence back, scoring a few goals and building off of it. You've got to have belief in yourself that you can do it."
And that's the message he is giving to himself every time he steps on the ice -- the belief that Jonathan Cheechoo can re-emerge as a top line player.
"Definitely," Cheechoo said. "I know it's in me and I want to come out and prove it to everybody."
While Cheechoo has belief on his side, he can also point to recent NHL history. Dave Andreychuk scored 41 goals for the Buffalo Sabres in 1991-92 and followed up with 29- and 25-goal campaigns before rejoining the NHL's elite marksmen in 1993-94 when he notched 53 goals with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The same year saw Adam Graves of the New York Rangers score 52 goals, but he scored only 17 and 22 the next two years before filling the net 33 times in 1996-97. A year later (1997-98) witnessed the emergence of Washington Capitals sniper Peter Bondra. But his 52-goal season was followed with dips in production until 2000-01 when he scored 45 goals.
"I want to come out and show people that I can still play at a high level," Cheechoo said. "I ran into a couple of nagging injuries last year, but that's no excuse. I still played and I know I have to find a way to get the job done.
"The last couple of years I didn't have the chance to work hard in the summer, as I had a couple of surgeries after the season, so I didn't have the full summer to get ready. This year I worked out the whole summer, got in great shape and I can't wait to get out there and get going.
"We've got a good young team here in Ottawa mixed with some good veterans. I want to get some early confidence and build on that the rest of the year through."
"Hits are part of the game," Cheechoo said. "It gets me into the game when I am physical. I enjoy getting hit, giving hits, and I feed off that contact. It fires you up. When you get hit or you go out and give a big hit, the intensity fires up. It gives you energy and then you go out and get a goal."
Cheechoo's new teammates are delighted to have him on the squad.
"We are very fortunate to have him on our team," center Mike Fisher said. "Cheechoo is a guy that can score goals and he works really hard. He is a trigger man, so it's just a matter of getting him the puck. The deal really added to our depth up front, spread out some scoring and maybe that (lack of depth) has been our downfall in the past.
"Cheechoo had some injuries and struggled the last couple of years, but he is feeling healthy now. It's just a matter of his regaining that confidence, and we know he can do that because he is a skilled guy that competes and works. He gets into the right areas to score goals and we need guys who can do that."
The Senators are trying to develop a new team culture -- one built upon an unwavering work ethic, selfless play and being an unpleasant opponent. Cheechoo's example will fit in perfectly.
"Absolutely, he competes, he plays physical and he can grind it out too," Fisher said. "Cheechoo is a good mix of a lot of different things, so he is really going to help up front. We want to be a team that is on top of other teams, finishing every check, playing an in-your-face style of game. I think he is really going to help in that area."
"I want to come out and show people that I can still play at a high level. I ran into a couple of nagging injuries last year, but that's no excuse. I still played and I know I have to find a way to get the job done." -- Jonathan Cheechoo
"Everybody knows he has a great shot," Michalek said, "but it's actually an unbelievable shot with such a quick release. He always seems to be in the right spot on the ice and open for the shot.
"That year he got 56 goals was amazing, but the last couple of years he had injuries. I think this is a whole new start for him. But he is a good two-way player, too. He is very good in our zone and he can go to the net. Jonathan is a hard-nosed player, good in the corners, and will win all the little battles."
Sounds like it won't take long for Cheechoo to turn all of Senators Nation into believers.