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Opportunity Knocking

by Staff Writer / Dallas Stars

Winger Jonathan Cheechoo isn’t your normal tryout player. He’s seen a lot in his career so far, even if he is just 30 years old.

A former winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2006 when he scored 56 goals for the Sharks, Cheechoo found himself at a crossroads this past summer. He was without a hockey team for the first time since he started playing the game as a youngster.

Cheechoo’s production slowly declined after that breakout year of 2005-06 (though it had nowhere to really go but down). He was an All-Star the next season but saw his goal and point totals cut in half in 2007-08 and he was eventually traded to the Ottawa Senators as part of the Dany Heatley deal last summer.

He played in 61 games for the Sens last season, scoring five goals and 14 points, while also being sent to the minors for a stint. Ottawa ended up buying Cheechoo out of the final year of his $3.5 million contract in June and it has been difficult to find a home.

So how did Cheechoo fall so far and so fast?

“I don’t know how to explain it. It could have been injuries, how (the Ottawa and San Jose staffs) saw me – could have been a little of both. I’m still stumped on it,” Cheechoo said after skating in Frisco on Monday. “I just have to put it behind me and move forward.  I put in probably my best summer of work in a long time. I was able to do all of the things I needed to do right from the get-go and worked all the way through the summer. Now I feel really good and I have a lot of jump.”

Injuries surely haven’t helped him over the last few years. A double-hernia surgery mixed with some shoulder issues, and then there were both MCL’s that had to be repaired in his last season in San Jose.

“Everybody has injuries and they add up but it’s just a matter of feeling healthy,” he said. “I didn’t get hurt at all last year; I didn’t miss any game time. For me, that was a positive step. I just want to get out there and play. I feel really good out there (right now) and I’m excited about the chance here.”

Dallas extended Cheechoo an invitation to tryout at the team’s training camp that begins this Friday in PEI and Cheechoo jumped at it.

 “They contacted me and let me know how interested they were,” he said. “They’ve always been a team that I’ve hated to play against; they’ve kicked us out of the playoffs when I was in San Jose. I know the core that’s here, the type of players they have, and it’s a team that doesn’t miss the playoffs very often. They struggled last year but I get the feeling from Joe Nieuwendyk and the other players here that this is something that they want to remedy and hopefully I can come in and help a little bit.”

A right-handed shot who could play some at camp with Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow, Cheechoo would embrace any opportunity like that. But he knows that anything can happen and he could be playing with anyone.

“I think what the coaches are looking for is which players have the best chemistry together. You can’t force things. But you try everybody out and wherever the opportunity presents itself for me, I’m going to do the best I can.

“Mike (Ribeiro’s) game is cycling and it buys so much time, an extra second gives you an advantage. Joe (Thornton) used to use his size and Mike uses his quickness. He’s a good player and I’d love to have the opportunity to play with him. But I’ll do whatever is asked of me and do my best.”

Morrow said that he could see Cheechoo as a possibility to play with him and Ribeiro, but only time will tell.

“I’ve known him in the past from playing against him in San Jose and he had a lot of success with Joe Thornton,” Morrow said. “He’s a lot like Ribeiro in that he slows the play down and if you find the open spot in the shooting lane he’ll get you the puck. I think that’s what our guys are hoping works out.”

Cheechoo feels very good about the extensive work he put in over the summer and most importantly – he feels healthy.

“The opportunity is there. It’s up to me to take advantage of it,” he said. “Hopefully the work I did this summer will pay off.

“I feel stronger and quicker and healthier. There’s nothing lingering coming into the season and I feel strong. I feel solid out there. I feel like I have that strength I need to play the way I do, and a lot of it is confidence. When you lose confidence it is hard to get it back. But I’ve been working on that and working on finding my spots and hitting where I am shooting on the net. I built a shooting structure in my backyard and I have been working on that a lot too (this summer). I’m just hoping that it all will pay off for me.”

Cheechoo is no stranger to doing the work it takes to make it to the NHL. Now he knows he just has to do it again.

“It’s a matter of putting your head to the grindstone and going at it. I feel like I’ve done that this summer and hopefully I’ll be able to prove some people wrong. Mainly I just want to prove to myself that I can do it.”

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