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Veteran sniper Cheechoo a leader on and off the ice

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers

- Since signing an AHL deal with Oklahoma City back on Jan. 20, veteran forward Jonathan Cheechoo has made an immediate impact with the Barons.

On a line with the Barons' leading point-producer, Mark Arcobello, and Philippe Cornet, the 32-year-old product of Moose Factory, ON, has collected eight goals and 20 points in 18 games. (A statistically oddity: Cheechoo has yet to record a single-point game. The 20 he's produced were all recorded in seven multi-point outings.)

All he needed was an opportunity, regardless of the level.

"Any time you skate on your own, it's a little tougher," said Cheechoo, who was unable to attract interest from an NHL team and was effectively unemployed after the work stoppage. "It's not a game situation and for a lot of guys, even when they're injured, it takes a few practices and a few games to get back in the swing of things.

"We had a good group of guys skating in San Jose and that was pretty good. It was one of those things where I tried to keep myself in tune and as ready as possible."

Abetted in part by the mid-season acquisition of superstar power forward Joe Thornton in 2005-06, Cheechoo's third National Hockey League season was one to remember. The 6-foot-0, 200-pound winger captured the Maurice 'Rocket' Richard Trophy as the League's top goal-scorer after registering 56 goals and 93 points.

That was the highest of highs, however, as Cheechoo's point totals declined in each of the next three seasons and was eventually dealt to the Ottawa Senators in 2009. After spending the 2009-10 campaign between the Senators and their AHL affiliate in Binghamton, Cheechoo has been in the minors ever since.

Last season with the Peoria Rivermen, Cheechoo put up 25 goals and 56 points in 70 games and was once again considered one of pro hockey's more naturally gifted snipers.

The production is a bonus, indeed, as Cheechoo is most looking forward to working alongside and leading the Oilers' youngsters.

"It's still hockey and that's the one universal that us as hockey players have," smiled Cheechoo. "Regardless of anything around you, it's still hockey. Obviously I have played a lot of games in the NHL (501), so I wanted to come in and provide any leadership available and anything that I could pass along to the younger guys, or even with the guys that aren't so young. You come in, you try to fit in and find a place. And when you can contribute, too, that's a nice thing."

Having played his share of games in the American Hockey League (305 heading into Wednesday's contest vs. San Antonio), Cheechoo is no stranger to the ever-changing structure of a minor-league roster. It was magnified this season, especially in Oklahoma City considering the loss of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz.

Understanding he brought something the Barons were in need of, Cheechoo says the transition has been "seamless."

"With any AHL team, the core is going to change over the course of the year with injuries and trades on the big clubs," he said. "Overall, I think I fit in pretty well with these guys. We do a lot of talking off the ice to get ready for when we're on the ice, and that's a pretty important part of the game.

"Everyone's been really good. It's an easy dressing room to fit into."

As trying as the past three seasons have been, Cheechoo is thankful he's been given the opportunity to play the game he loves for a living. The passion with which he plays is mirrored in his past, as Cheechoo left home -- a community of about 2,500 on the remote Moose Factory Island -- to chase his dream of playing professionally at age 14.

He was drafted 29th overall by the San Jose Sharks four years later.

"I remember my dad explaining to my grandmother where San Jose was," said Cheechoo. "She'd heard of the team, but she never realized where California was. When she found it was almost 3,000 miles away, she was like, 'Wow, that's too far. You should just quit and come home.'

"Luckily I didn't follow her advice," he laughed.

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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