The connection between forward Jonathan Cheechoo
and coach Roy Sommer
, which dates back more than a decade, briefly fell to pieces this preseason.
That was the state of Cheechoo's cell phone after the Dallas Stars
released him from training camp. A frustrated Cheechoo half-flipped, half-threw his phone at his bed. In line with the way his luck was going at the time, he missed the target and the cell phone splattered on the floor.
"I was not happy. Anytime someone gets let go, you're not happy," Cheechoo said. "I thought I played pretty well there. They explained to me they were going in a different route."
It's a good thing for Cheechoo that Sommer, his first AHL coach, is the persistent type. Sommer wanted to know if Cheechoo was still interested in playing. If so, Sommer said he had a spot for him on his Worcester squad.
Either way, Sommer wasn't going to give up without an answer. Sommer left several messages to what he didn't realize was a dead phone, and when Cheechoo finally got a new one and checked his voicemail he was quick with a response.
"I kept calling him. He didn't call back for five days or a week," Sommer said. "I told him, come here, let's see if you can play down here, and we'll get you back to the NHL. He said, 'I'll be there tomorrow."'
Cheechoo, 30, isn't quite back to the NHL, his full-time home with San Jose from 2002-09, but he's awfully close. In 39 games with Worcester he has 14 goals and 23 assists, both good for tops on a team that is currently in the mix for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Another telling barometer came earlier this month, when Cheechoo's efforts in the AHL were rewarded with a starting spot for the East in the league's All-Star Classic Jan. 31 in Hershey, Pa.
"It shows you are playing at a high level," he said. "The thing you learn quickly [in the AHL] is that everybody at this level is here for a reason. If you want to succeed, you have to put in the effort. When you're down here, it's the way to get noticed. When you're up there [the NHL], it's the way to stay up there. I don't know if you understand it when you're young."
Cheechoo gets it now, especially after a year of getting lost in the shuffle. The Sharks, for whom he produced 165 goals and 126 assists in 440 games, traded him to Ottawa in September 2009. He had 5 goals and 9 assists in 61 games for the Senators, but was eventually sent down to the team's AHL affiliate in Binghamton.
"Obviously, it's disappointing. I don't know if you get over it," Cheechoo said of the demotion. "It kind of drives you to get back to where you were. It's something you should carry with you. It makes you work harder."
That's the kind of ambition Sommer remembered when he coached Cheechoo as an AHL rookie with Kentucky in 2000-01. Sommer kept tabs on the player when they crossed paths in San Jose's training camp. Their reunion this season has felt to both like days have passed, not years.
"He's always been a really good teacher," Cheechoo said. "He's given me a lot of good advice. I had a pretty good comfort level with him. He hasn't really changed at all. He loves the game. He loves helping people out."
Cheechoo's reciprocal attitude in that department might be the biggest change during his second session in Sommer's classroom. Cheechoo said he remembers how players like Adam Graves
and Mike Ricci
helped him in the formative stages of his career. Now, Cheechoo is the one staying well after practice ends, parceling out tips to the newcomers.
"He loves coming to the rink every day. What more can you ask for from a veteran?" Sommer said.
Added Cheechoo: "If I see them doing something that isn't the best habit, I say something to them. I like to bring the young guys along. I had a lot of guys who helped me out when I was younger. The better they play, the better off I'll be."
There's not a lot for Cheechoo to tinker with in that department. Yes, the same questions about his skating ability that have dogged him his entire career still echo inside his helmet. Still, Sommer watches his former prospect play and sees skills not that far removed from the ones that made Cheechoo a 56-goal scorer for the Sharks in 2005-06.
"I seem to have lost some confidence last year. I think I've gotten it back," Cheechoo said.
Added Sommer: "He's slippery one-on-one. There's times here he just dominates below the circles. You would think someone in the NHL could use that skill."
That's precisely what Cheechoo is betting on. He's insisted on playing for Worcester with the freedom of a tryout deal while spurning two-way bids from other organizations. Cheechoo's gambit is he'll keep playing well enough to soon lure a one-way NHL offer from some team, and when that call comes he'll be sure to have his phone in working order.
"I still feel I can play at that level. Otherwise, I wouldn't be playing down here," he said. "I've had some good years up there. I still have the desire to get better. As long as I'm hungry, I'll get back up."