-- The spotlight will be on Jonathan Cheechoo long before the Sharks'
forward hits the ice today against the Oilers.
will play host to 14 high school students from Pierceland, Saskatchewan,
the neighboring Canadian province to Alberta. Twelfth-graders attending
the school that boasts a strong First Cree Nation's heritage have
been assigned to write a biography on Cheechoo.
doing a report on native people so it's an honor that they chose
me,'' Cheechoo said. "I'm looking forward to talking to them
and giving them insights to what it's like being a hockey player.''
not long ago the 23-year-old right wing was in their shoes. The
only difference was Cheechoo didn't have any First Cree NHLers to
inspire him. There weren't any.
native of tiny Moose Factory, Ontario -- a 5-square-mile island
reservation some 500 miles north of Toronto -- Cheechoo is the only
member of the Moose Cree First Nation (formerly known as Moose Factory
Band of Indians) to sign and play in the NHL. Even before his rookie
season last year, Cheechoo's minor-league jersey was presented to
the Hockey Hall of Fame in recognition of where he came from.
wonder he's playing role model after today's morning skate.
lot of the kids up there, they're good kids,'' Cheechoo said. "We
just need to get them on the right track, give them a little information
here and there. If they pick some things up and learn from it, that
will help them down the line.''
growing up far, far from any NHL rinks, Cheechoo did have one source
of inspiration, former Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan.
is an Ojibway Indian who was born and raised on the Garden River
Reserve, located near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He won the 1997
Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year. Previously, he had served
as assistant coach with the Hartford Whalers, and led the Soo Greyhounds
of the Ontario Hockey League to two league championships and the
Memorial Cup, the national title, in 1993. Nolan, 45, took up coaching
after injuries ended his brief pro career as a player in 1986.
remember it was Grade 7, I got the chicken pox, missed school and
I got to see him instead,'' Cheechoo said. "It was pretty neat
to hear him speak about some of the things he's done and how he
accomplished them. I think that was an inspiration."
it turns out, Cheechoo was an inspiration for Nolan as well.
a time when he turned the frustration of not getting another NHL
head- coaching offer into starting a development program for indigenous
hockey players across Canada, Nolan got a boost from Cheechoo's
assembled rosters for traveling teams from a pool of players with
far less talent than Cheechoo. But because of the respect he had
for Nolan and the pride he had for his people, Cheechoo insisted
he be part of the project.
was a second-round pick of the Sharks,'' Nolan said. "He didn't
have to help with that team. Two weeks before what was basically
his first pro camp he came to Finland.''
was in the summer of 2000. Cheechoo had traveled a long and hard
road not only to reach the precipice of his NHL dream, but to overcome
a number of obstacles along the way.
are a lot of problems in the native community with a high unemployment
rate, lower self-esteem, obvious drug and alcohol problems,'' Nolan
said. "I bet 98 percent of the (NHL) players never had the
hurdles Jonathan's had to overcome.''
Factory is only accessible by train and then either a plane, helicopter
or boat. During freeze-up and ice-breakup periods, the only means
of transportation between the island and mainland is by helicopter.
Cheechoo showed promise in the sport by his early teens, he moved
far from home so he could continue to develop his game.
miss your family. There are a lot of nights you go to bed crying,''
Nolan said. "It's too much for some kids and they don't stick
with it. Jonathan didn't do that. It just shows what kind of character
think Jonathan might lead the next wave of players from the native
communities,'' he added. "Our kids are tough because of the
environment they come from. He can be a trailblazer for the next
wave that's coming.''