Sometimes the right words make all the difference.
Jonathan Cheechoo was getting plenty of advice when he scored just five goals in his first 37 games this season. Advice from teammates, from friends on different teams. Even advice from the security guard outside the San Jose Sharks' dressing room.
After netting a League-leading 56 goals in the 2005-06 season and following that up with 37 more in 2006-07, the 27-year-old bundle of energy from Moose Factory, Ontario began a decline that started with this season's early drought.
What happened to the player who always had battled long odds, but always had found a way to dig deep and prove the critics wrong?
During the final three months of last season, Cheechoo began to be bothered by minor aches and pains that kept him out of more than 20 games. Then, in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Nashville, there was a borderline hit to the groin and hip area. Another injury followed in the second round against Detroit. Double hernia surgery was required in late May, followed by weeks of doctor-prescribed inactivity. No running. No biking. Nothing.
Still, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Cheechoo said he felt fine when he reported to training camp in September.
"I've always been counted on to score goals for every team I've played on," Cheechoo said. “I haven't been doing that a lot this year. Everyone's been trying to help me out. But the bottom line is, I know I have to score to help the team out.
"I know my role on this team is to score goals, and when I don't, I probably put more pressure on myself than anybody else could. You might say I'm beating myself up inside."
Great individual performers, whether golfers, musicians, artists or goal scorers, get blocked. Their mind shuts down. And their confidence disappears.
It took a post-Christmas phone call from home to get his mind set straight. Some might say it was a bit of divine intervention. Others might say it was a few well chosen words from dear old dad – Mervin Cheechoo, who just happens to be a minister at the Cree Gospel Chapel in Moose Factory.
The talk worked, as Cheechoo rediscovered his scoring touch, putting in 17 goals in his last 25 games.
"No one knows my game better than my dad," Cheechoo said. "He told me to trust my instincts. Stop pressing. Remember the days when I used to shoot 500 pucks a day at the shed in the backyard when I was just a kid.
"It's funny, my mind did ease a bit. I remembered how I kept hitting the same spot so much that I broke a hole in the shed. Then he made me shoot at a fencepost outside. Naturally, when you get a little older the shots start to rise ... until one day I shot the puck over the fence and broke a window. That was it. No more shooting around the house."
I once heard another scorer who got into a prolonged slump talk about how things creep into your psyche, and instead of confidently doing what comes naturally to you, you begin to hesitate. And ...
"That's it exactly," Cheechoo chimed in.
Cheechoo remembered thinking that his dad must have been working on a sermon when he talked to Jonathan, because he then added, "Trust your instincts. ... Remember: He who hesitates is lost."
Cheechoo never had hesitated in his life. He's the poster boy for hard work and a hunger to succeed, especially when you hear the story about his quantum leap from Moose Factory, an island community of about 2,000 people about 500 miles north of Toronto, to the NHL. The odds are even longer than the distance by dogsled to this isolated spot in northern Ontario.
There are no paved roads in Moose Factory, just some gravel streets. When the Moose River freezes over, a road is constructed across the ice to the mainland town of Moosonee, where the train station is located. In the summer, motorized canoes take residents back and forth. But in the spring and fall, when the river is thawing, the only travel between the towns is by helicopter.
But it's home to Mervin and Carol Ann Cheechoo and their kids, Jonathan, Kari and Jordan.
|Jonathan Cheechoo credits a talk he had with his father, a minister, over the Christmas holidays for allowing him to refocus on his game again.
Cheechoo moved to Timmins, about 190 miles away, to play on a top bantam-level team there. Two stops later, he had improved enough with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League to be picked by the Sharks in the second round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.
A scout wrote that Cheechoo skated slower going forward than some prospects skated backward. He took that report as a challenge, and the townsfolk in Moose Factory took up a collection to pay his tuition at a skating school to improve his quickness.
The rest is history, especially the magical connection with Joe Thornton after he was obtained from Boston in a trade in November 2005.
But it obviously wasn't all the arrival of Thornton. Linemates connect because they offer one another talents and intangibles. With Thornton, it's amazing vision and passing ability. With Cheechoo, it's the ability to find holes in the defense and a grit and hunger to succeed.
"I've never seen a player with such character and drive to succeed," said Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson. "'Cheech' plays with a grit that others can only hope to have. He's almost like a wide receiver who you ask to go across the middle with the possibility he's going to get creamed by a linebacker. With him, you don't have to ask him to do it a second or third time.
"I've had young players come up to me and ask what he has to do to make it in the NHL. I tell him; 'Just watch Jonathan Cheechoo and do what he does.'
"Cheech' is definitely his father's son. He is proud, dedicated to his profession and passionate about how he succeeds in this business. And he never quits on any play."
"My dad is my hero," said Cheechoo. "When I look in the mirror, I ask myself what would dad do in this situation and go from there. I owe everything to him. He's the one who told me that I should shoot 500 pucks a day against the plywood wall of the shed."