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 or 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 games.
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� 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.