Do You Know The Names In San Jose? Jonathan Cheechoo, of distant Moose Factory, is leading the anonymous but dangerous Sharks in pursuit of the Stanley Cup

April 25, 2004

If you want to skip the NHL playoffs' second round this weekend
and make a pilgrimage to Jonathan Cheechoo's hometown, you'll
have to drive eight hours north from Toronto to Cochrane, Ont.,
hop the Polar Bear Express for the five-hour train ride to
Moosonee and then, because of melting ice on the Moose River,
catch a helicopter to Moose Factory. This community of 2,700 off
James Bay is the oldest English-speaking settlement in Ontario,
dating to the 1670s. It's an old fur-trading outpost that is home
to the Moose Cree First Nation, Cheechoo's tribe. The
five-mile-square speck of land and history has an indoor rink and
a Pizza Hut but no paved roads. It is a place where the
mosquitoes are the size of Learjets and where boys' dreams were
stunted until Cheechoo began scoring for the San Jose Sharks.

These days Cheechoo, a right wing with a heavy shot and a humble
manner, lives in a high-density area: that crowded place in front
of the net where playoff goals are made. When he scores--28 goals
in the regular season and one in the Sharks' five-game ouster of
the St. Louis Blues in the first round--his earnest face
brightens like the northern lights. While linemates Mike Ricci
and Scott Thornton might have been slow to embrace the
23-year-old Cheechoo's joyful, instinctive style after years of
playing with the savvy, cautious Niklas Sundstrom (now in
Montreal), together they have become the equal of any third line
in the NHL. The only attribute the Cheechoo-Ricci-Thornton line
lacks is a nickname, no surprise on a team of multidimensional,
honest players that had the NHL's third-best record this season
but remains as anonymous as a Gregorian-chant composer.

In one remarkable season the Sharks have reinvented themselves.
They've gone from a plodding Eastern Conference-style club to a
quick team that can skate with the Western powerhouses, from a
team with a caste structure that catered to veteran Brahmans to a
homey, almost egalitarian group. After an extended period of
mourning for coach Darryl Sutter, who was dismissed during the
2002-03 season, the Sharks embraced coach Ron Wilson and his
smart, droll ways. More important, they embraced each other. San
Jose has become the rare team on which players do not extend
their shifts, the most common form of selfishness in the NHL. Nor
do players complain about their roles, of particular note in the
case of fading 36-year-old star Vincent Damphousse, who has
played wing after spending almost a decade at center. Evgeni
Nabokov, a holdout last season, again played like an elite
goalie; center Patrick Marleau, who had three goals against the
Blues, replicated his 28-goal regular season (tying Cheechoo for
the team lead); forward Nils Ekman, previously a journeyman minor
leaguer, chipped in 55 points while playing fewer than 15 minutes
a game. These might not be sexy names, but they have appealing

Among these witness protection program all-stars, Cheechoo sticks
out, not just because he's the only Moose Cree in the NHL but
also because he skates with the grace of a man falling down
stairs. "He's teetering, and you're going, Oh, there's a train
wreck, and suddenly he's righted himself," Wilson says. "People
think he's off-balance, but then he leans on them and comes away
with the puck. He actually has exceptional balance." Cheechoo is
not sneaky-quick, because anyone who flails that much can't sneak
up on you, but he gets where he needs to go in good time. He's a
veritable Secretariat next to Ricci's Clydesdale, and he's five
feet faster end-to-end than he was a year ago. That's one benefit
of a fierce off-season training regimen that trimmed Cheechoo's
body fat from Ben & Jerry's levels to 8%. He also worked with
power-skating coach Graeme Townshend, a former NHL player.

Cheechoo has done remedial skating for almost as long as he has
been able to tie his shoes. He took his first formal lessons in
Toronto at age 15, courtesy of the people of Moose Factory, who,
with other northern Ontarians, have contributed $10,000 over the
years to help Cheechoo pursue hockey. Three years earlier his
father, the Reverend Mervin Cheechoo, pastor of the Cree Gospel
Chapel, had told Jonathan that if he wanted to play pro hockey,
he would have to live "outside," away from the tribe. The boy was
torn. He had wanted to emulate his grandfather George, a hunter
and a trapper, but Jonathan had also begun playing hockey on his
backyard rink at age 2 1/2 and was a star on Moose Factory's tiny
youth travel team. The land beckoned, but so did a net designed
to trap nothing but pucks. "I'd watched countless Stanley Cups
with my grandparents and uncles," Cheechoo said last Friday,
after San Jose had advanced to the round of eight with a 3-1 win
over the Blues. "On my backyard rink I had dreams that fans would
be watching and cheering for me."

Cheechoo was 14 when he left Moose Factory to play junior hockey
in Timmins, Ont., 190 miles to the south. Over the next five
years he would make the grand tour of Ontario, rising through the
ranks of junior hockey in Kapuskasing and Kitchener and finally
Belleville, where he established himself as a dangerous scorer.
The Sharks drafted Cheechoo 29th overall in 1998, after he had 76
points in 64 games in Belleville, and were encouraged by his
progress until he sustained a concussion while playing for the
Cleveland Barons in the American Hockey League two seasons ago.
"It was because of my skating," Cheechoo says. "I fell, hit the
boards, cracked my skull." The injury temporarily muddled his
mind. His father went to Cleveland to stay with him and nurse him
through headaches and self-doubt during a rocky six-week period.

Now Cheechoo spends the off-season in Sudbury, Ont., with his
parents. Mervin and Carol Anne, a kindergarten teacher, moved
there three years ago to enhance educational and sporting
opportunities for their other children, Kari, 16, and Jordan, 15.
But Jonathan returned to Moose Factory last summer to be the
keynote speaker at The Gathering of Our People, a five-day
festival for the Moose Cree. "This is an isolated community, and
it's easy to lose perspective," says Mervin, now affiliated with
the Sudbury First Nations Church. "There's a sense among the
youth that they can't accomplish anything or go anywhere. Well,
here's a kid who's been one of them, who went to their school,
who they saw every day." Now they can see him every other night
on TV.

The workaday Sharks, who shrugged off injuries to integral
forwards Thornton and Alyn McCauley against the somnolent Blues,
assume nothing. But you can assume this: If they win the title,
the Stanley Cup itinerary this summer will include a stop in
Moose Factory, a voyage of planes, trains and automobiles that
will touch a hockey community like no other.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN BROWNFIELD A STYLE ALL HIS OWN Though his skating is less than graceful,Cheechoo has emerged as San Jose's top goal scorer.