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Cheechoo & Thornton Still Smooth Sailing

by Staff Writer / San Jose Sharks

By Larry Wigge | columnist

With the precision of a Swiss watch, Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo have been more productive than any pair in the NHL since Thornton was traded by the Boston Bruins to the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 30.

But Cheechoo doesn't remember their first meeting as very positive.

First meeting? It wasn't at Buffalo December 2?

"We first met at (former Buffalo Sabres coach) Ted Nolan's golf tournament a couple summers ago," Cheechoo said. "Seamus Kotyk, who was a goaltender in the Sharks organization, knew Joe and introduced us. After the golf, Joe invited us up to Port Stanley (in Ontario near Joe's home) to water ski. It was my first time on water skis and all I remember is everyone laughing at me."

"Did you ever get up on the skis?" Thornton asked, tongue in cheek.

"The first time I made a big splash face first into the water," Cheechoo said, with an embarrassed look on his face.
Thornton then tried to bail Cheechoo out, saying, "It was a big boat. You have to remember, it had a lot of drag on the line, so ..."

But by this time, Cheechoo thought he was being one-upped again and sounding a tad testy, Jonathan returned fire, saying, "Hey, wait a minute, I did get on my feet on the second try."

The big splash that Cheechoo and Thornton made in the NHL has been more than a tad troublesome to Sharks' opponents.

"I remember one of our first shifts together in Buffalo (on Dec. 2), Joe sent me a perfect saucer pass from the corner over a couple of bodies and landed perfectly flat at my feet in front of the net and I scored," Cheechoo said with a big smile. "I thought to myself, 'Wow! This must be how it feels to be in heaven.' "

It's rare for two players to change the fortunes of an entire team, but Thornton and Cheechoo have done just that for the Sharks.

After an assist by Thornton on Cheechoo's 43rd goal of the season in a 6-0 victory at St. Louis on March 21, the twosome had been lights out -- Thornton leading the NHL since Dec. 2 with 16 goals and 51 assists in 43 games, while Cheechoo was not far behind with 36 goals and 20 assists in the same span to lead the Sharks to a 26-11-6 record.

That's after the team was wallowing with an 8-12-4 mark pre-Thornton-Cheechoo.

"The story isn't a solo act by any means," Sharks coach Ron Wilson told me. "From their first game together, it's been kind of magical how the skills of both players have just meshed."

Like ... Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri.

"Precisely," said Wilson.

Earlier this season, I was talking to veteran center Doug Weight, then with St. Louis and since traded to Carolina, about how it must be comforting to know that Peter Forsberg had moved from Colorado, leaving one less super center to face in the Western Conference.

"Yeah, but it might be worse now that Joe Thornton has left the East for San Jose ... and don't forget he's found a pretty darn good shooter to set up there," Weight said. "That Cheechoo ... he was getting stronger and better all the time ... and when you put someone out there to put him in an offensive mode all the time, well, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cheech score 50 goals before he's finished this year."

Pretty good guesstimate following a mid-December game, eh?

"From the time I was a kid dreaming about one day playing in the NHL, I thought I could be a goal scorer," Cheechoo said. "But not like this."

Cheechoo went from being a productive 28-goal, third-line scorer for the Sharks in 2003-04 to one of the most dangerous snipers in the game. He went from having an 8.4 shooting percentage in his first 24 games to an incredible 20.8 in his next 43 games.

The Cheechoo story was already an amazing one. Just getting to the NHL was startling as Cheechoo made a quantum leap that started more than a decade ago, when he left his home in Moose Factory, Ontario, an Island community of about 2,000 people about 500 miles north of Toronto, in an attempt to become the first Cree Indian to be drafted and play in the NHL.

Scouts often laugh that the next Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky could come from some isolated spot where you need a dogsled to traverse. But finding Cheechoo, the 29th pick in the 1998 Entry Draft, might have been more difficult if his parents hadn't believed in their son's passion to play hockey and had the confidence that he could one day achieve a professional career by allowing him leave home with their blessings.

"There are no paved roads in Moose Factory, just some gravel streets," Cheechoo said. "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."

An ultimately driven player like Cheechoo went back to Moose Factory after the 2003-04 season to work more on his shooting, firing hundreds of pucks each day at Mervin and Carol Ann Cheechoo's barn.

So when Cheechoo arrived in San Jose after the year-long lockout, he already had a little more fire in his dark brown eyes. And that was before Thornton arrived.

When the twosome joined together, it was like opening up a shooting gallery.

"For a guy who has been stuck playing with me for the last couple years, he's still managed to score a lot," chuckled Scott Thornton, cousin of Joe and frequent linemate of Cheechoo. "He has a gift for finding the net. He loves to have the puck on his stick. He loves the pressure situations. He just wants to score.

"He's one of those players with a karma ... or electricity about him. His confidence is contagious. Everyone likes him -- and I'll swear you can feel the energy going right up and down the bench every time he scores."
Cheechoo plays with a great deal of grit, though he has the soft hands of a goal scorer.

"He's a gritty goal-scorer," said Mike Ricci, now with Phoenix, but a former linemate with Cheechoo and Scott Thornton back in 2003-04. "Yeah that's right -- gritty and a goal scorer. He's not the fastest skater in the world, but he finds a way to get to the net -- and boy can he shoot."

"I've never seen a player with such character and drive to succeed," said Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson. "He 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 Cheech, you don't have to ask him to do it a second or third time.

"When we bring a young kid in all I have to do is tell him to watch Cheechoo's work ethic and try to mirror it."
Joe Thornton echoed those likeability qualities of Cheechoo.

"I wasn't sure what to expect when I got traded," he said. "Not playing against San Jose much and only seeing him on TV a few times, I didn't realize how good and quick and dangerous he is at finding those holes a passer always looks for when he's trying to find a goal-scorer. After the first game or two, I knew we had that kind of chemistry I had with Glenn Murray for so many years in Boston. Maybe better."

According to Cheechoo, he had to change his game a little to mesh with Thornton.

"Joe is so good along the boards and around and behind the net -- places where I used to do a lot of my work," Cheechoo said. "Now, I have to pick my spots when to go into those areas. But I'm not complaining."

Ron Wilson said a coach dreams of finding a pair that clicks like this.

"I had Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya in Anaheim and Adam Oates and Peter Bondra in Washington," he said. "You feel lucky to have such ultra-talented players to tap on the shoulder and send on the ice who you can pretty much count on to create scoring chances throughout the game.

"My only concern is that Cheech might lose the grit part of his game. I don't want that. But even though Joe wins so many battles down low with his size, Cheech is often right in there with him before he goes into that stealth mode of his where he kind of disappears for the blink of an eye and then reappears in one of those scoring areas and Joe hits him with one of those feather passes of his."

Was there any advice Ron Wilson gave to Thornton before his first game with the Sharks.

"The only thing I told Joe before I put him out there with Cheech is that he was a third-line player who had 28 goals in a checking role back in 2003-04 who just loves to shoot the puck," Wilson said. "I had always figured Cheech would someday get 35-40 goals. But from the minute I saw Joe and Cheech click, I knew we were in for something special."

Special is a word that often gets tossed into the conversation when you're talking about the 27-year-old Cheechoo, who proved prophetic about his career in the NHL when he was asked to write a paper when he was in 7th grade on the subject of what he would be doing 10 years from now. His answer: He would be playing for the San Jose Sharks.

Knowing the story and how his mother stumbled on the essay in a box around the house after Jonathan had made it to the NHL, I wondered if he perhaps also saw Joe Thornton as his center.

"You know how kids are," he said. "I probably envisioned Wayne Gretzky as my center ... or Mario Lemieux. But I know Joe and (Sharks captain) Patrick Marleau have been friends since they were 17 (and representing Canada in world junior tournaments even before Thornton was the No. 1 pick overall and Marleau No. 2 in the 1997 Entry Draft).

"We sit around the locker room and watch a lot of hockey games and whenever Boston was playing, Patty would tell me this or that story about Joe. ... So I guess it was almost like I knew him before I really met him for the first time."
Blues coach Mike Kitchen said there's one more part to this Thornton-Cheechoo equation.

"What makes the equation even more difficult to face is that Marleau lines up at center right behind Thornton and the Sharks make you pick your poison," Kitchen said. "If you try to use your best checker on Thornton and Cheechoo then you might give Marleau and his linemates too many good opportunities."

That's exactly what happened March 21, when Steve Bernier, a rookie winger playing with Marleau followed Cheechoo's goal with two of his own to begin the Sharks' blowout of the Blues.

Some players just make everyone around them better ... and Cheechoo, Joe Thornton and Marleau are three that the Sharks have going for them down the stretch run this season.

Trying to get the last word on the water skiing incident, Cheechoo wanted to make sure that I knew that he and Joe had agreed to spend some vacation time in Jonathan's neck of the woods this summer.

"We'll see if he's a better fisherman than I was a water skier," Cheechoo laughed. "And we'll see how much he likes moose meat, too."

If you get the impression that there's even a little friendly competitive edge even in talking about vacation, maybe that's what makes this Jonathan Cheechoo-Joe Thornton combination so special.

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