When he was young, Jonathan Cheechoo thought he would follow in his grandfather's footsteps. He would be a trapper who hunted and fished for a living in Moose Factory, Ontario, an American Indian community in north Canada.
That was before Cheechoo developed into a talented hockey player. To achieve his dream of playing professionally, the Oklahoma City Barons forward had to leave home at age 14.
Eleven years after leaving the tiny island, the most famous member of the Cree tribe scored 56 goals in 2005-06 for the San Jose Sharks to win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, given to the NHL player that scores the most goals.
The entire time back home in Moose Factory, a community of 2,500 celebrated every step of the journey.
Sometimes they raised money to help pay for hockey school costs when he was young.
When he was selected 29th overall in the 1998, more than 120 friends and family members traveled to Buffalo for the NHL Draft to rise and cheer him.
“It's a really small island, so everyone is tight knit,” Cheechoo said. “It's a great family atmosphere. You know everyone.”
To reach the island 600 miles north of Toronto, a 15-hour train ride, one must travel by plane or train just to get in the vicinity. Depending on the time of year, one must then take either a helicopter, boat or snowmobile to the 1,300 acre plot of land that sits between Hudson Bay and James Bay.
Cheechoo grew up in a culture that's not all that different from his ancestors'. Before he pursued his hockey dream, Cheechoo's favorite activity as a young boy was hunting geese, ducks and moose with his grandfather, George.
“It is so isolated, food costs quite a bit. For us hunting was for our food,” Cheechoo said. “We did a lot of fishing in the summer. My grandfather trapped beaver, otter, wolf, fox, pretty much everything during the winter. That's something I grew up around.”
Moose Factory is so far north that during a really cold winter, temperatures can drop to as low as minus-40.
“There are quite a few warm days in the summer, but the fall, winter and spring it's pretty cold,” Cheechoo said. “Snow stays around until about May. You kid of get used to the cold. The main thing for us is there are no roads going to where we are. It's difficult to get there.”
Isolated from the world, discovered by former Buffalo coach Ted Nolan at a youth clinic at age 13, Cheechoo was told he'd have to leave home to chase his dream. That first year, playing bantam hockey in Timmons, Ontario, he often cried himself to sleep.
“That was the toughest part,” Cheechoo said. “Growing up, I'd go over to my grandparents' every day. A city of 50,000 was big to me. I had to learn how to get around on a bus and other things. When I was home, I walked everywhere.
“Luckily I had a great support system. My parents were unbelievable throughout the whole process. They kept encouraging me to give it my best, chase what I wanted because they knew I'd regret it if I didn't give it my best shot.”
Cheechoo's best shot led to a seven-year NHL career. Including the playoffs, he scored 186 goals and 340 points in 560 NHL games.
The past two seasons, he's played in the AHL with Peoria and Worcester.
“He's a guy who can score goals. That's what we needed after those guys went back to Edmonton,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson, speaking of the young stars who rejoined the Oilers after the NHL lockout ended. “He's a good veteran and a really good person. He gives us some added punch.”
In the Barons' last game, Cheechoo tied the club record with five points on a goal and four assists. Cheechoo feels the Barons are a good fit for him.
“Obviously they lost some guys,” Cheechoo said. “They have a good, young team, a good base and a good coach. That was one of the things I was looking for. Coming here, I'll have the opportunity to earn my ice (time) and have a shot to put up some points.”
Age takes its toll. Cheechoo, 32, said undergoing double hernia surgery a few years ago sidetracked his career.
“I had a lot of injuries that last year in San Jose,” Cheechoo said. “A lot of little injuries add up after a while. It took a while to open my hips back to get more power, more strength. I had a good finish last year (56 points in 70 games). This year I'm looking to jump right in and get going in a shortened season.”
His goal — to play in the NHL — is the same today as it was nearly two decades after he left Moose Factory.
“With all the injuries that happen during a shortened season there could be some opportunities,” Cheechoo said. “I always work on improving and getting up my speed a little bit. I've just got to take care of my game. You never know what might happen.”
BARONS VS. GRAND RAPIDS
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cox Convention Center.
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1, Jim Byers play-by-play.
Tickets: Tickets starting as low as $10 are available at the Cox Center box office or by calling 232-4625.
Scouting report: The Barons continue to add veterans. Besides signing forward Jonathan Cheechoo and defenseman Brett Clark last month, Randy Jones and Theo Peckham are new additions with NHL experience. ... Oklahoma City is 10th the Western Conference with 48 points. Grand Rapids (56 points) is second and leads the Midwest Division. ... The Griffins, the Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, are led by Gustav Nyquist (43 points).