Cheechoo's story starts long before Thornton

Updated: March 27, 2006, 10:51 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But what does it take to raise an NHL star?

The unflinching love of parents? Sure.

The relentless determination of the player himself? Absolutely.

But, sometimes, the long journey between what is imagined and what becomes reality requires more. Sometimes, such a journey requires a village.

Jonathan Cheechoo
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJonathan Cheechoo makes regular trips back to Moose Factory during the offseason.

And if it seems like Jonathan Cheechoo, the goal-scoring machine for the San Jose Sharks, has simply fallen to earth like some alien creature with great hands and a deadly shot, look more closely and you will instead see the loving handprints of an extended family that includes virtually the entire population of the frigid outpost of Moose Factory, Ontario.

"He's a special young man and he comes from a special family and a special environment," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said after Cheechoo had notched his conference-leading 42nd goal of the season on Sunday, a moment that seemed to coincide with Cheechoo's spontaneous recognition around the hockey world.

"Yeah, it's been a little crazy," Cheechoo told ESPN.com. "I guess if you're getting the attention, you're doing something right."

Much of what has been said and written about the 25-year-old has focused on the instant karma he's enjoyed with former Bruins captain Joe Thornton. Cheechoo has scored 34 of his 43 goals since Thornton arrived in San Jose on Nov. 30 and is poised to shatter the franchise record of 44 goals held by former captain Owen Nolan. Since Thornton's arrival, Cheechoo is fifth in the NHL in point production with 56 points in 43 games, including four hat tricks. After scoring 28 goals in his sophomore season (nine game winners), Cheechoo has suddenly shouldered his way among the NHL's elite goal scorers.

But to draw a neat little line from Cheechoo to Thornton, one of the NHL's leading scorers, and assume that is the totality of Cheechoo's story of unheralded stardom is to miss the true nature of the man. And to understand the man, one has to first understand what it means to grow up in a place like Moose Factory.

Located in the mouth of the Moose River, about 13 miles south of the southern tip of James Bay, is the island community of Moose Factory, home to the Moose Cree First Nations people for as long as the history of the region has been recorded.

The closest mainland village to the 1,300-acre island is the town of Moosonee, about three miles from Moose Factory.

In the days before Moose Factory got its own indoor rink, Cheechoo traveled across the frozen waters on a snowmobile to play games in Moosonee.

"We didn't have a car when I was young. I'd dress at home and we'd bundle up in blankets," for the trip across the ice, Cheechoo recalled. "We'd do whatever it took to play."

When he wasn't playing organized hockey, Cheechoo could be found on the outdoor rink his father built every year from the time Cheechoo was 4 years old.

"It's hard for people to imagine. A lot of people probably wouldn't expect what they'd see when they go to Moose Factory," Cheechoo said. "It's pretty small. It's pretty remote. It's on an island. A lot of people don't realize how far it is."

So, how far is it?

Well, in August 2001, Cheechoo's parents, Mervin and Carol, sister Kari, 18, and brother Jordan, 17, moved to the northern Ontario community of Sudbury.

They did so because the mining city gave the family new opportunities. Mervin could work with a First Nations church, Carol could further her education and the two younger Cheechoo children were provided more opportunities. But the family returns as often as possible to Moose Factory, visiting family and friends and reconnecting with their community and their way of life.

To make the journey, they must travel 250 miles north to Cochrane and then take a train 5½ hours to Moosonee. The train makes the trip only three times a week. During the winter, visitors can snowmobile or drive a car or truck across the ice from Moosonee, and during the summer there are motorized canoes and boats to facilitate the last leg of the journey. But during the fall and spring days when the ice is either forming or melting, the only way to get to Moose Factory is by helicopter.

When Cheechoo's parents were growing up, they left their families to travel almost 200 miles south to Timmins, the nearest mainland urban center, to go to school. It was no different when Cheechoo was young and starting to pursue his hockey career. He left to play bantam hockey in Timmins before being drafted by the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League. Cheechoo was selected by the Sharks with the 29th overall pick of the 1998 draft, after which he played two more seasons in Belleville. He played two seasons in the American Hockey League before being called up by San Jose for the bulk of the 2002-03 season.

While Cheechoo's hockey travels have taken him far from Moose Factory, there is a distinct difference between escaping such a past and embracing it. For Cheechoo, it is all about the latter.

He returns to Moose Factory every summer and is feted by the community with dinners and plenty of homemade delicacies, such as fried moose, which Cheechoo lists as his favorite food.

Last summer, for the first time in a decade, Cheechoo returned and went hunting, revisiting some of the patterns that marked the natural cycle of the seasons when he was growing up. From the time he was 4, Cheechoo would go camping and hunting with his family -- moose in the fall, geese in the spring, and rabbits, partridge and other game throughout the year.

"That was part of our lifestyle. We hunted for food because it was pretty expensive [in the stores] and not too fresh," Cheechoo said.

When he's not at home, many televisions in Moose Factory with the NHL's Center Ice package are tuned to Sharks games. Cheechoo's 83-year-old grandmother is often among those staying awake until 1 a.m. or later to watch her grandson play. When he does return, Cheechoo quickly settles into the daily routines.

"I know my family, all my relatives, they will always treat me the same no matter what," Cheechoo said.

If there is comfort in returning to Moose Factory, there is also the element of paying a debt of gratitude.

Before Cheechoo's first year of junior, his father spoke to hockey people who thought Cheechoo possessed terrific hands and a great feel for the net, but that his skating would likely to hold him back. So Mervin wrote letters to local First Nations officials and to local companies asking for help. The community, through fund-raising events and donations, collected more than $10,000 to help send Cheechoo to Toronto to work on his skating.

"I told him that if he was going to go somewhere, he might as well go all out," Mervin told ESPN.com. "We wanted him to have the top training he needed."

Cheechoo went on to become the first Cree hockey player drafted in the NHL. When his name was called at the draft in Buffalo, more than 100 friends and family were in the crowd, their shouts practically lifting the roof off Marine Midland Arena, the honor and excitement of being drafted shared throughout the community.

It has been so throughout his career. From the time he began his junior career, Cheechoo has had to embrace the notion that he represents a significant symbol of hope for an entire community. Just as he idolized aboriginal Canadian players such as Ted Nolan and Chris Simon, young First Nations players across North America look to Cheechoo for inspiration.

"I know that kids really look up to me," Cheechoo said. "You've got to kind of accept it. I just try and do my best and live my life accordingly. I signed autographs for four hours the last time I was up there."

It's something that instills tremendous pride in his parents.

"I think it's definitely important because I think a lot of the kids look up to Jonathan," Mervin Cheechoo said. "A lot of kids don't reach their potential for whatever reason. Seeing somebody they know with similar background growing up gives them a lot of hope, too."

In the meantime, Cheechoo continues to help the Sharks edge steadily toward a playoff berth that earlier in the season seemed unattainable.

"I just think he's so naturally gifted," said Thornton, who met Cheechoo through a gathering at a mutual friend's cottage before being traded to San Jose. "He just always goes to the scoring areas, which are areas where a lot of guys won't go."

As for the path Cheechoo has traveled, from the frozen outpost of Moose Factory to a starring role in the NHL, Thornton said it's inspirational.

"It's a remarkable story. He's done so well. It just goes to show you, if you want something bad enough …" the big center said.

Wilson first saw Cheechoo play in the Memorial Cup in Ottawa.

"Every time he was on the ice, he was around the puck," Wilson recalled.

But it wasn't just his scoring acumen that attracted one of the league's most respected evaluators of talent; it was Cheechoo's passion for the game and the character he possessed.

"He is an amazing guy that really epitomizes what we're looking for in a hockey player," Wilson said. "The thing about him is that he scores big goals. He scores winning goals and goals when the game is on the line."

Young players sometimes get off track the farther they get from their roots. Wilson doesn't see that happening with Cheechoo, which is why the GM took the unusual step of offering the young forward a five-year, $15 million contract extension this season.

"He will not change," Wilson predicted. "His family and his community will not allow him to change."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.