OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - When you love the game as much as Jonathan Cheechoo, it doesn't matter where or at what level you're playing.
"It's all I've ever known," Cheechoo said after Tuesday's practice in Oklahoma City. "Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was play pro hockey. Obviously this isn't the NHL, but at the same time, for me, getting to play the game that I love and to do it with a great group of guys all chasing one goal, that's the stuff you dream about it when you're a kid."
It was at the highest level possible where Cheechoo became famous. As a former second round pick of the San Jose Sharks, the 6-foot-0, 200-pound winger appeared in 501 games over the course of seven seasons in the world's best league.
In 2005-06, Cheechoo broke out and quickly became one of the NHL's most revered snipers. Helped in part by the mid-season acquisition of power forward Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins, Cheechoo won the Maurice ‘Rocket' Richard Trophy as the League's top goal-getter after scoring an incredible 56 goals and 93 points.
In each of the next three seasons, however, Cheechoo's point totals declined. As a result, he was traded to Ottawa in the summer of 2009, splitting the 2009-10 campaign with the Senators and the club's AHL affiliate in Binghamton.
He's been in the AHL ever since, spending one season with the Worcester Sharks and another with the Peoria Rivermen before landing with the Barons in Oklahoma City.
Last season with the Rivermen, Cheechoo put up 25 goals and 56 points -- his highest output at the professional level since the 2007-08 season in San Jose.
Once again, he's having success playing the game he loves.
"It's been great," said Cheechoo. "The guys have been great and we're playing very, very well. It's been fun. It's been a good ride and I hope we can continue it."
On a line with Mark Arcobello and Philippe Cornet, the 32-year-old product of Moose Factory, Ontario, collected 13 goals and 32 points in 35 regular-season games. To this point in the post-season, he's produced a pair of goals and eight points.
As a unit and continuing their success into the spring, the line has combined to record 33 points in 12 playoff games.
"You don't really get to play with guys that long down here, but to be able to do that and put up the numbers we have, it shows that we all have pretty high hockey sense and good chemistry out there," said Cheechoo.
"It's a pleasure to work with them."
"It's easy to play with a guy like him," added Cornet. "I know everyone says he's a sniper, but I think he brings more than that. He creates a lot of chances for us out there. He's a pretty big guy, too, so he creates space and his speed is very good. He's more of a shooter than a passer, so when he has it on the wing, I'm expecting him to put it on net. What I have to do is drive the net and get to the rebounds if he doesn't score off the initial shot.
"It's huge," he added of Cheechoo's leadership. "Having a guy that scored 56 goals one season in San Jose, not a lot of guys are able to do it. I'm fortunate enough to be on his line and there are a lot of things that I can learn from him. When he says something to me, I listen and I try to make the most of the situation. It's not every year that you're going to play with a guy that has that much experience, so I'm trying to take advantage of it."
With over 300 games of AHL experience, Cheechoo is no stranger to the ever-changing structure of a minor-league roster. When the NHL lockout ended in January, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz and others were all shuttled back up to Edmonton, leaving gaping holes that needed quick attention in Oklahoma City.
On Jan. 20, Cheechoo signed an AHL deal with the Barons. Since then, OKC has been one of the American Hockey League's best teams, second only to the Providence Bruins with a .676 standing point percentage and 22-9-0-6 regular-season record.
Rattling off another eight wins so far in the playoffs, the Barons are only three away from a berth in the Calder Cup Final. On and off the ice, Cheechoo has been a key component to the team's success.
"You can't put a price on good leadership," said Head Coach Todd Nelson. "He provides that for us. He's very calm. He's passionate when he plays the game, but when you talk to him in the dressing room, he has that sense of calmness. It doesn't matter how the game is going -- if it's going good or bad, he has the same demeanour, and I think that helps out our young guys.
"We went through a stint there where it was pretty tough, but once we all started coming together, things have worked out."
"I don't really put any pressure on myself to be a leader, but in the room, any advice that I can give or anything I can say to help the team win, I'm going to do it," added Cheechoo. "In my earlier years, I was more reserved and kept to myself a little more. But I've learned a lot and it's good to share it with these guys.
"Hopefully they can take something with them and I can be watching these guys play even when my career is done."
Until then, he's just enjoying the ride alongside them.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick