Made In Moose Country
There are countless stories about athletes beating long odds to make it to the pros. And then there's Jonathan Cheechoo
It feels like the end of the earth.
In reality, it's Moose Factory, Ontario, a dot of a town on a 1,300-acre island near the mouth of the Moose River. To the north are James Bay, Hudson Bay and … the Arctic. To get there from Toronto, it's best to fly commercial to Timmins, take a small plane to Moosonee and then your choice: helicopter or—in the winter—drive across the river.
Drive it is, by snowmobile. Upon your arrival at 8 a.m., five days before Christmas, the sun is crawling over the tree-lined horizon, casting shadows 40 yards long on the snow-covered gravel road that leads into town. The noise you hear is the whine of snowmobiles heading off into the bush, carrying trappers out to their traplines. Most of the population of 2,700 live in wood-frame homes, many with canvas tepees in the back. And there, on the corner of Veterans and Mook-I-June-I-Beg roads—Jonathan Cheechoo Drive—is the home in which Jonathan Cheechoo grew up. The home of the first Moose Cree to make it to the NHL.
Hockey—pretty much any sport, come to think of it—produces lots of small-town-kid-makes-good stories. All have similar elements: endless hours of practice, nurturing townsfolk, the moment of discovery, a dream shared by player and community. But take one walk through Moose Factory and chat with a few of the locals, and you realize that Cheechoo's story trumps most of the others.
After all, how many other heroes practiced for six hours straight in minus-40° weather, risking toes to frostbite? How many other hockey teams have to wait for the ice in the river to freeze before they can travel to play opponents? Listen to the tale about how the people of Moose Factory chipped in $15,000 for Jonathan's hockey training—lessons, clinics, tournaments—and you have to wonder, how many other towns have invested so heavily in hope?
To say the investment paid off handsomely is an understatement. Last season, Cheechoo scored 56 goals for San Jose's Sharks, officially leading the NHL in goal-scoring and unofficially leading in highlights: twisting through traffic, pinballing off checkers, deking while falling down, never quitting. "He has great hockey sense," says Sharks GM Doug Wilson. "He understands where you have to go to score goals, and he's fearless in getting to those places. That's a matter of character as much as skill. And it's not the quantity of goals he scores but the quality. He's at his best when he's needed most."
Cheechoo has, for all practical purposes, put his town on the map. Best of all, the Pride of Moose Factory takes real pride in Moose Factory. One of the worst things you can say about someone successful is that he forgets where he came from. But this barren and faraway place is always on Cheechoo's mind. "I daydream about it all the time," the 26-year-old says. "I might see a bird and think of the geese flying over Moose Factory. Or during hunting season, I'll wonder what my friends are doing." For many, the longing that Cheechoo feels might seem like a burden. Wilson sees it differently: "With someone else I would be worried, but Jonathan views it as a responsibility. He understands that he would not have made it as far as he has without the support of his family and community, more than other players in the league."
WHEN SOMEONE comes from the end of the earth, where does the story begin?
Maybe it starts with Cheechoo's Moose Cree ancestors, who were already on the island when the Hudson's Bay Company showed up in the early 1670s to start trading. Even today, centuries-old tombstones of long-gone fur traders peek out of the snow, and a few ancient company buildings still stand. In some ways, Moose Factory is frozen in time. With not many places to go, there are few cars or trucks on the island. There's one store, two restaurants, one post office and one hospital. A kid can grow up in Moose Factory without ever seeing a movie on a screen, without diving into a swimming pool, without eating a McNugget. One other thing about the place has never changed: the people. To this day, Moose Cree share what they bring back from the hunt.
Or maybe it starts with Jonathan's grandfather. George Cheechoo is one of those trappers lighting out at dawn. He's made the 30-mile trek out to his trapline hundreds of times, first on snowshoes with his father, who'd done the same with his father. George was the first of the Cheechoos to ride a snowmobile out to the family trapline. "At 72, I don't think I'd be walking," he says, though he looks like he's still fit enough to do it.
George never played hockey. He was too busy trapping, too busy painting walls at the hospital, too busy putting food on the table for a big family. Too busy drinking. Then, when he was pushing 30, George looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw. He looked out his window and didn't like that view, either: the despair that goes with 90% unemployment and leads to tragically high rates of alcoholism and suicide. "When I was young, I wasn't being a good father," George says. "I realized I had to give up drinking, and I needed religion in my life and my children's. So I made sure that my children went away from Moose Factory to religious schools." One of his sons—Mervin, Jonathan's father—even ended up a minister.
Or maybe the story starts with an article written by the father of singer Neil Young. In the March 12, 1980, Toronto Globe and Mail, under a headline that read "Cheechoo Boys Need Ice Arena," Scott Young wrote, "A snowstorm was raging [in Moose Factory] yesterday afternoon—covering, among other things, the home ice of the Moose Factory Scrappers, the Indian senior men's hockey champions of Ontario … It is outdoors, of course. Natural ice."
There were nine Cheechoos on that team—the surname is the Moose Factory equivalent of Smith. Mervin was one of the best. "My father had a wrist shot that was harder than most guys' slap shots," Jonathan says. "I remember watching him when I was young. Those teams played a real tough style."
In that column, written four months before Jonathan was born, Young called on the provincial government to build an arena for the people of Moose Factory, "the kind who make things happen against all odds." In 1992, after more than a decade of fund-raising (and hundreds of bake sales), the Thomas Cheechoo Jr. Memorial arena was opened. Jonathan was on the ice for the first public skate.
Or maybe it all starts with a vision. Growing up, Jonathan figured he'd end up a trapper, like his grandfather, or maybe a minister, like his dad. But at age 12, he wrote a sixth-grade essay declaring that he'd play professional hockey one day. Lots of Canadian boys write those essays, usually pledging allegiance to the Canadiens or the Leafs. But Jonathan's was different. He saw himself playing for the recently formed Sharks because his favorite player, wing Pat Falloon, played for them.
But even before that essay, before the arena, Jonathan was a special player. Like his elders, he learned hockey outside. Moose Factory old-timers tell you their game had everything to do with playing without a roof. That bad ice, rutted and covered in snow, forced them to fight for their balance, to be stronger on their skates. Only the toughest showed up in the killing cold and galeforce winds. "Jonathan was out there every day, trying new moves," says his cousin Robert Alisappi, a Moose Factory cop. "He was so determined. I remember him having the flu real bad and begging Mervin to let him play in a tournament down near Sault Ste. Marie. He got a hat trick and was the best player on the ice against a lot of older kids."
The Moose Cree saw Jonathan's talent. They knew and respected his family. They knew Jonathan was a top student, a boy who never caused trouble. They also knew hockey, knew that as good as Jonathan was, his game needed to improve. So they took up a collection—$4,000 for this trip and 15 grand overall, in a place where a couple of bad days' fishing means you might go hungry—and sent the teen to hockey camps and tournaments in Toronto to work with instructors who'd coached NHLers. "That's just how people are at home," Jonathan says. "They were pulling for me to make it."
Support from home was only the first step. His family decided that the next one, the most painful step, was for Jonathan to move to Timmins. There, in that old gold-mining town, he could play in a Bantam Triple-A league, better hockey than he would ever see on the island. Mervin's brother, Doug, works there as a counselor for native kids who come to Timmins to go to school. He found Jonathan a home with a doctor and his family. "It was a home where education and achievement were important," Doug says. "Jonathan was able to make the transition. A lot of kids struggle and go home."
Says Jonathan: "For a lot of players, it's tough to go from junior to the pros or from the minors to the NHL. For me, it was tough leaving Moose Factory for the first time. That was a totally different life than what I was used to. I phoned home every day. Lots of times I wanted to come home when I called, but by the time I hung up, I decided to stick it out."
Every fall it was a new team, a new town. At 17 he made it to major junior, to the OHL's Belleville Bulls. He was a good—not great—prospect, but he was already on the Sharks' radar. "I loved him," says John Ferguson Sr., then San Jose's chief scout. "A lot of people wondered about his skating, but down low, the toughest places to go, he was as good as anyone you'd ever see. Coming out from the corner to the net, there was nobody better."
One hundred twenty people made the 16-hour trip south from Moose Factory to Buffalo for the NHL draft. When the Sharks called Jonathan's name in the second round, the whole contingent stood and cheered as if all of them were moving to Silicon Valley.
The next season, Jonathan led Belleville to the OHL's junior championship. In the deciding game of the final, he scored five goals. Still, many doubted he'd make the NHL. Not even a quarter of the kids taken in the second round make it. Even after he did get called up to the big club in 2002-03, there were skeptics. When he racked up a career-best 28 goals the next season, the Sharks figured he'd realized his full potential. One Maurice Richard Trophy later, they know that anything is possible.
Throughout his journey, it should be noted, Cheechoo has had to deal with considerable racism. One scout wrote that Cheechoo might succeed "if he stays away from the firewater." Cheechoo won't say anything about it, and when he hears taunts from fans today—"Drink some Lysol" is a favorite in some rinks—he doesn't say a word. Too proud. And always mindful of what he signifies to the people back home. "There isn't an athlete who means as much to his community as Jonathan does to us," says Vic Linklater, a Moose Cree filmmaker working on a documentary about the island's hockey history. "He represents hope. He's inspired lots of young players to go south to chase their dreams."
As it happens, Jonathan's immediate family went south for good. His parents live in Sudbury, the largest city in northern Ontario. The move doesn't mean they've forgotten where they came from, not even after Jonathan signed a five-year, $15 million deal last summer. Rather, it was another family decision, another choice to improve their lives. "My wife was finishing her Ph.D.," Mervin says. "Our younger son, Jordan, was looking to play hockey here. It was a chance for our daughter to go to better schools. And Jonathan could train here in the off-season. He couldn't do that in Moose Factory." True: There isn't a weight room or a trainer on the island.
So until he makes it back home for his annual visit next summer—when he can expect another autograph session that runs six hours—Moose Factory will have to make do by watching Jonathan on the tube. That's what Jonathan's grandparents are planning to do tonight, on the Saturday before Christmas. They've invited you in to watch the Sharks play the Flames in San Jose, when Jonathan will play on Hockey Night in Canada, the Great North's version of Monday Night Football. George has come back from his trapline with a bountiful catch: 20 beavers, 20 otters, dozens of partridge. He has stored the haul in the shed, right next to a rack from the moose Jonathan felled when he was 14. George and Beatrice usually go to bed early on Saturday so that they can be up early for services at Cree Gospel Chapel. But they'll stay up way past midnight tonight.
Photos of Jonathan, from Pee Wee to the present, line the bookshelves, alongside a Bible and religious literature. Beatrice scans the channels, and the local station comes up with an ad: The Reverend Mervin Cheechoo … Family living seminar, Jan. 16.
"There's Mervin and that service he's coming up for," Beatrice says.
She finds the game on the dish. The puck is dropped, and Jonathan comes into the frame. "C'mon, Cheech!" Beatrice yells, sitting bolt upright as if she were in the Shark Tank with Mervin and Carol Anne, who are at the game. "Back when our children were growing up, Moose Factory didn't have running water or electricity," George says. "When we first got electricity, we listened to hockey on the radio. You couldn't get a television signal here. But now when the playoffs are on, we take a portable generator and a TV on fishing trips so we can watch his games. And when he's on, all of Moose Factory shuts down."
Yes, all of Moose Factory's shutting down means the bolting of just a few doors: at the diner, the grocery, the arena. Watching Jonathan on HNIC is a damn good reason to stay indoors for folks who don't need much of a reason at all on a frigid night.
Jonathan doesn't score tonight, although he comes close. It looks like he touched the puck on a power-play goal when he crashed the Flames' net and screened goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, but the scorer doesn't see it that way. No matter. The Sharks beat the Flames 4-1 to stay in the hunt with the Wings, the Preds and the Ducks for best in the West.
You watch George's and Beatrice's faces when an announcer says that Jonathan is off his scoring pace from last season, that he has played through injuries all year. "But don't bet against him getting back in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy," the voice says.
The old Moose Cree smile. Long odds, sure, but not half as long as the ones their grandson beat skating into the spotlight from the end of the earth.
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