By Dustin McGladrey
March 24, the day when the San Jose Sharks meet the Calgary Flames, will be Jonathan Cheechoo appreciation night, where family and fans will celebrate the right winger.
Cheechoo, from Moose Factory, Ont., has announced his retirement.
“I think I knew at the end of last year that I was done. I had some injuries,” he told Dustin McGladrey of CFWE-FM.
Cheechoo will bring down his parents for appreciation night, but will connect with many of his supporters this coming week as chair of the Little NHL tournament held March 11 to March 15.
Growing up, he played in the Little NHL, before advancing though the ranks to the actual NHL.
He spoke with Dustin McGladrey of CFWE about his experiences on his journey to the top league and learning a lot of life’s lessons as a player in the AHL.
He had to learn to cook for himself, pay bills and do laundry.
“You’re kind of thrust into learning life as it goes… making sure you come out alive… I had to call my mom. I turned my clothes different colors all the time,” he joked about his experience as he struck out his own.
During that same time he had to work on his game. He needed to improve to get to the big league.
Í spent those years kind of formulating that and getting better.”
Getting to the NHL is hard work, said Cheechoo. He said he had to transform his body and his mind.
“For me it was a lot of getting into shape,” Cheechoo said. “I was in good shape, but it was taking that extra step, going that extra mile,” like eating a little better.
While he could play from the red line in in the offensive zone, the coaches worked with him to learn to play in his own end, to become more responsible that way. He said there are two parts of the game.
“If you’re successful in one, you can always learn the other.”
But, despite this extra effort, when Cheechoo made the jump to the NHL, he was sent back down again, which he acknowledged was discouraging in a way.
“It was mainly conditioning, because I hadn’t played in 10 games. They didn’t want me sitting around. But at the same time, I still had to go down there and prove that I belonged still in the NHL, so for me going down was a little discouraging, but at the same time I had a taste of the NHL and I wanted to get back up there.”
Back in the NHL in 2003 he got 28 goals and 29 assists.
Cheechoo credits his father and uncles for developing his love for the game, but also NHL insider Ted Nolan.
“He came up and did a hockey school in Moose Factory… I think I was 12 years old at the time and kind of got some guidance from him on what I needed to do if I wanted to take that next step. He’d obviously been successful as a player and a coach, so getting advice from him was I think crucial. Something that I took to heart… if I put in the work, anything can happen.”
Cheechoo said it’s not an easy thing to do; it’s tough to make it to the top in hockey. He got to see Jordan Tootoo, also from the north, make it to the top tier. Cheechoo had played with Tootoo’s brother growing up in the game.
Jordan, said Cheechoo, plays a pretty bruising style. “It was nice to see him come out and succeed.
There are other Indigenous players working as role models in the NHL, said Cheechoo.
“It’s a positive thing for our youth… they see that their dreams are within reach,” Cheechoo said. He intends to involve himself more in that outreach, providing encouragement to the younger generations.
“I had people who did that when I was young and anything that I can do to help youth succeed it’s a joy to go and do that kind of stuff.”
For now, however, he wants to let his body heal.