There have been some great stories in the NHL and all sports of come-out-of-nowhere-to-be-superstar stories. Some of them end quicker than they started.
Perhaps no one exemplifies that example than former San Jose Sharks “superstar” Jonathan Chechoo.
A member of the Cree tribe, a First Nations community making their living hunting and fishing in Moose Factory, ON, Cheechoo always thought that was what he would do when he got older.
“It is so isolated, food costs quite a bit. For us hunting was for our food,” Cheechoo said. “We did a lot of fishing in the summer. My grandfather trapped beaver, otter, wolf, fox, pretty much everything during the winter. That’s something I grew up around.”
But after being discovered by former Buffalo coach Ted Nolan at a youth clinic, Cheechoo began to chase his dream, leaving home at 14 to play junior hockey.
Playing with the Bellville Bulls, he made a name for himself for his crash/bang style of play and for being a solid, if unspectacular, scorer. Improving his totals each year (from 76 points to 82 and finally topping out at 91 points in 1999/00), Cheechoo was drafted 29th overall in 1998. He had even technically been involved in a draft day trade where the Sharks sent the #2 overall pick (used by Nashville to selected the highly regarded David Legwand) to the Predators for the third pick (defenseman Brad Stuart) and the 29th pick.
The Sharks were widely criticized for the selection of Cheechoo, thought to be a mid-round prospect at best. One scouting report even referred to him as a lackluster forward who “skated slower forwards than most players skate backwards.”
After two solid seasons, including a 66-point effort, he finally got his shot with the Sharks. Getting mostly fourth line minutes his rookie season, he had an uneventful 16 points. But 03/04 would he let his employers know that he would be there to stay, posting 28 goals in 81 games playing with the ever-offensively-gifted Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton.
After playing with HV71 of the Swedish Elitserien League during the lockout of 2004/05, Cheechoo came back to the Sharks and turned many heads. The mid-season trade that acquired Boston star Joe Thornton would energize the grinding winger. He would post 15 points in 24 games before the trade before exploding for 49 goals and 78 points in the 57 games since Jumbo Joe’s arrival.
Jonathan Cheechoo had finally made the big time.
His 56 goals would win him the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the NHL’s leading goal-scorer. Many credited his ascendance with Thornton’s arrival and it was hard to argue with the timing.
Following that kind of performance is difficult no matter the player and Cheechoo naturally dipped in production the next season. Still, his 37 goals and 69 points were nothing to scoff at. His play had finally rewarded him with a new contract: 5 years/$15M .
But the success story stopped there. Injuries began to mount for Cheechoo, including a double sports hernia, over the next few seasons and his production took a nose dive. Falling from 37 goals in 2006/07 to just 23 in 2007/08, he bottomed out at 12 goals for the 2008/09 season.
The Sharks, perhaps realizing that whatever magic Cheechoo had found may have worn off, dealt him to the Ottawa Senators on September 12th, 2009. Cheechoo, Milan Michalek, and a 2nd round pick were traded for superstar winger Dany Heatley and a 5th round pick.
Even a new change of scenery couldn’t re-energize the struggling Cheechoo. He was placed on waivers in February of 2010 and eventually bought out by the Senators in June.
He’s since bounced around the AHL, getting a professional tryout this year with the Oklahoma City Barons, scoring 23 points in 22 games.
Jonathan Cheechoo may never recapture the magic he had for a couple of seasons playing with Joe Thornton but he’s not giving up on his dream of getting back to the NHL. And at 32, he’s still got a lot of fight left.
So who knows? Crazier things have happened. After all: he did score 56 goals once.
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