Jonathan Cheechoo has quickly become a fan favorite at HP Pavilion. Part of it is due to his 28 goals last season which tied Patrick Marleau for the team lead. Part is a result of his "cool" sounding last name, which quickly turns to a drawn out call for "Cheech" when his play dazzles the fans. A portion could be due to the story he wrote when he was 12 saying how he wanted to play for the Sharks. However, the biggest part of the equation might just be that the fans can relate to him.
Not many Silicon Valley residents grew up on a reservation and hunted in the traditional ways of Native Americans, but similar to the people he plays in front of, Cheechoo knows that if he works hard enough, the job will get done.
Most NHL players were provided a natural ability that helped them reach an elite level. "Cheech" has considerable natural ability, however, some players have to work harder than others and Cheechoo would definitely fit that mold.
That Cheechoo was selected 29th overall showed he had talent. He led Belleville to the Memorial Cup, including posting an amazing five-goal performance in the deciding Game 7 of the OHL Championship. Yet there were reasons he was selected just outside the first round. The slapshot may have been NHL ready, but the conditioning was not.
"He had to address his fitness level and he committed to being here one summer," said Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson. "He really changed his body. That helped him improve in every other area. It increased his ability in the speed game and his overall development. He can play any style on any rink at any time."
Cheechoo's hard work is apparent during play whether it is falling to the ice to corral a loose puck or mucking it up in the corners in a one-on-one battle.
"Whether it's the playoffs or an exhibition game, you know he is going to bring it," said Wilson. "He just loves the game. He truly wants to be a high-end player."
Even though Cheechoo had improved physically, he still had to translate that to the ice and that needed to be done in the American Hockey League, not in the NHL. Cheechoo had spent two seasons in the minors before finally getting a taste of Sharks hockey. Yet it was during Wilson's tenure as director of pro development and spending time in Cleveland that he knew Cheechoo would become the player he is today.
"When I saw him go back to Cleveland and how he played then, I knew he was not going to be denied," said Wilson. "He simply worked harder. If he's being held back, he'll burst through the doors."
And hard work seems to be a theme that follows Cheechoo.
Nearly 100 people from Moose Factory showed up for the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, displaying the family atmosphere Cheechoo grew up with extends well beyond the home and bloodlines.
"He has a tremendous amount of respect for his mom and dad," said Wilson. "With Cheech, what you see is what you get. He knows not to cut corners and you can credit that to his family."
Cheechoo grew up in Moose Factory surrounded by grandparents, multiple aunts and uncles and numerous cousins. Whether it's his immediate family, or his extended family unit, family is an undeniable force in Cheechoo's life.
When the Sharks season ends, Cheechoo heads back to Ontario where he lives with his parents who are now in Sudbury to be near his younger brother (who was drafted by Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League). From there he travels north to Moose Factory. Unlike many small town kids who aim to leave, Cheechoo is happiest when family is around.
"I like to spend time with them," said Cheechoo. "I left when I was pretty young to play hockey, so it is good to go back."
In order to reach the NHL, Cheechoo and his family recognized he needed to leave the island where Moose Factory sits. No matter how hard it would be emotionally.
"We are pretty tight, so it was hard, but I had an uncle in Timmons (where Cheechoo initially played), so that helped," said Cheechoo. "He went to all my games. That first month was tough. I just missed being around my family. But I made a decision to try and make it in hockey and my parents supported me. It was probably a lot tougher on my mom, but she and my dad had to leave Moose Factory to go to high school, so they understood and that made things easier on me."
Most close families are lucky to see each other once a week, but with Cheechoo's extended family, relatives were constantly around during his youth.
"I would always go to my grandparents and there was always an aunt or uncle there," said Cheechoo. "It helps growing up in a small community. We were so isolated, so you couldn't just get up and go. The island is not that big. You could probably walk across it in half an hour."
For those needing a refresher course, Moose Factory is on island in Canada's Hudson Bay and the best way to reach the town is via boat after more than a full day's drive from Toronto.
That type of closeness taught everyone to take care of each other.
"If one person killed a moose, everyone got a piece of it," said Cheechoo.
Hunting was not just a sport for the Cheechoo family - it was a way of life. Food was available via traditional means, but being in a remote part of Canada, it had a high cost associated with it.
"Hunting is big for us being that food is so expensive," said Cheechoo. "Hunting provided a lot of the diet. We would go to the same spot each spring and stay out for about three weeks. Most suppers were from what we shot. In the spring we'd hunt Canadian Geese. I started going hunting when I was eight, but I would go out with everyone when I was younger. Then, we would mostly just go retrieve the geese and be taught how to do things like fixing up the camp."
Cheechoo's parents have made it to San Jose, but he is hoping his grandparents can make it to Silicon Valley this season.
"My grandpa, grandma and my other grandma made it to a game in Buffalo," said Cheechoo. "It was an eight-hour drive, a five-hour train and then another one-and-a-half hour drive. The family gave my grandparents a trip for their 50th wedding anniversary, so hopefully they can make it here this year. Grandma doesn't like to fly and grandpa doesn't like to leave Moose Factory."
That isn't a major problem for Cheechoo who still enjoys returning to Moose Factory. In an age where most small town kids are looking moving towards bigger cities, Cheechoo still enjoys the good life of Moose Factory. Although, he hopes the return trip this year will be delayed until after a long Stanley Cup run in May.
On the hockey side, Cheechoo sat atop the Sharks list of goal scorers in 2003-04 and his future looks even brighter.
"His best hockey is ahead of him," said Wilson.
That is good news for Sharks fans and tough news for opposing goalies.