The Way to San Jose

For Jonathan Cheechoo, hard work and faith were instrumental in his journey from James Bay to the National Hockey League

March 9, 2009 by Jayne Thurber-Smith


1g7o0582In 1992, 12-year-old Jonathan Cheechoo wrote in a school assignment that he wanted to play for the San Jose Sharks in 2002. On October 10, 2002, this self-proclaimed prophecy came true. In a game against the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks’ Jonathan Cheechoo became the first member of the Moose Cree First Nation to play in the National Hockey League (NHL).

It’s not surprising that one of Jonathan’s favourite Bible verses is Luke 8:50—“Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

“That’s what my dad would tell me,” Jonathan says, “and he’s always given me great advice.”

The Bigger Man
Born in Moose Factory, Ont., a small outpost at the southern end of James Bay, Jonathan first started playing hockey at the age of three. “Images from Hockey Night in Canada filled my Saturday evenings season after season, at home with my family or over at my grandfather’s,” he told Indian Life. “We all love the game.” His father, Mervin, encouraged his son’s love for hockey by making a small rink in the backyard every winter, where he could practise his shooting and stickhandling with his friends. Young Jonathan took up to 500 shots a day on his personal rink from the start of winter until the ice melted in spring.

“My dad was a pastor,” Jonathan says, “and sometimes it was tough being a preacher’s kid. I’d get a few comments here and there, but I’ve always admired my dad’s faith and I’ve tried to follow his example. He did a great job raising me.”

Jonathan’s hockey games were played in Moosonee, Ont., which was five kilometres across the water. The only way to make this trip in the summer is by boat. In winter, the locals use a snowmobile or light truck.

“I had to adjust to the structure of an actual league,” he says. “There were more demands but it was fun to be part of a team.”
Jonathan moved to Timmins, Ont., when he was 14 to play Bantam AAA hockey.

“That was hard,” he remembers, “but my parents were a great support system. Whenever there was something wrong, they’d either talk me through it or even come visit me.”

It was his first time away from home and he had to deal with the occasional racist remark.

“At a young age, that cuts into you and makes you feel you’re not quite right,” Jonathan states. “If you take the wrong approach, it can leave you with a chip on your shoulder. My dad taught me to be the bigger man in those situations.”

Riding the Storm
Not only did Jonathan and his parents believe in Jonathan’s heart for hockey but the whole town of Moose Factory got behind him. When he was eligible for the Ontario Hockey League draft, Jonathan was selected by the Belleville Bulls. Mervin spoke to some hockey scouts who told him that Jonathan’s skating wasn’t where it needed to be. Mervin appealed to Cree First Nations officials and to local businesses for funds and they came up with $15,000 to cover Jonathan’s lessons, clinics and tournaments. Their investment paid off. In 64 games, he registered 31 goals and 45 assists.

The following spring, Jonathan was selected by the Sharks as the 29th overall draft pick. More than a hundred friends and relatives made the long drive to the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo, N.Y., to cheer the announcement.

With Jonathan on the roster, the Sharks finished the 2003-2004 season second in the Western Conference, up from 14th place the year before, and made it into round two of the playoffs. After the 2004-2005 hockey strike, Jonathan’s on-ice partnership with newly acquired centre Joe Thornton, plus the league’s tightened interference rules, helped him finish the 2005-2006 season with 56 goals, edging out Jaromir Jagr for the NHL lead. Jonathan was awarded the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, given to the player with the most goals in a season.

“It was exciting to get that award,” Jonathan says, “and to be rewarded for my hard work. That was a dream season I’ll never forget.”

Jockbio.com says Jonathan is “absolutely fearless and seems impervious to pressure.” He played in the starting lineup of the 2007 All Star Game and wanted to be part of the playoffs so badly that year that he played through the pain of a sports hernia. The 2008-2009 season got off to a slow start for Jonathan as he suffered from another injury, this time in his back.

“You just ride out the storm when you’re injured, knowing you’ll come out of it,” he says.

Work, Goals, Purpose
Mervin and his wife, Carol, still visit their son, even though San Jose is a little further away from their relocated home of Sudbury, Ont., than Timmins was from Moose Factory.

“Dad and Mom come visit here with my sister, Kari, and my brother, Jordan, to see me and to get a break from the snow, so that’s nice,” Jonathan says. “I miss the snow now that I’m living in California but I get to see it when we play teams in Canada and the northern United States.”

Jonathan still looks to Mervin as his mentor and tries to follow his father’s example. He rejects the notion that Christians aren’t as aggressive as other athletes.

“It’s still a game and it’s still fun for me,” he reflects, “but I play my game and work hard. I think everyone sees and respects that.”

To those 12-year-olds who dream of being where Jonathan is now, he wants them to know his secret: “Work hard, set goals for yourself and give yourself a purpose in what you want to achieve.”

That’s what got him all the way from Moose Factory, Ont., to San Jose, California.

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