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Jonathan Cheechoo honoured for his pro hockey career

BY Ben Powless Mar 24, 2023

The pride of Moose Factory, Jonathan Cheechoo, was inducted into the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame (NAIAHF) in February for his impressive 16-year career in professional hockey, including seven seasons in the NHL. Cheechoo is a member of Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario. 

Cheechoo began playing hockey at four years old, joining the AAA Bantam league in Timmins at age 14. From there he was drafted fifth overall by the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls in 1997, where he played for three seasons. 

The San Jose Sharks made Cheechoo the 29th overall pick in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, leaving him to level up in the OHL before being brought up to the Sharks’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades in 2000. 

In 2002, he was called up to the Sharks, where he would stay until 2009. During that time, he became a revered player, scoring a franchise record 56 goals and 93 points in the 2005-2006 season. Cheechoo would become the first Shark to win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the most goals in a season and the second Indigenous player in the NHL to score more than 50.

From there, Cheechoo was traded to the Senators for the 2009-2010 season, but moved between AHL teams in the following years, before jumping to the European Kontinental Hockey League in 2013. He retired in 2018, after scoring 305 points in the NHL; 737 as a professional. 

“Proud of his roots and Cree heritage, he has maintained strong ties to his home community. Jonathan credits much of his success to the support of his community and supportive, loving family. Jonathan enjoys leading hockey camps in his hometown and speaks to Indigenous youth about the importance of pursuing their dreams,” the Hall of Fame said in its profile of Cheechoo.

Mervin Cheechoo, Jonathan’s father and the current chief of Moose Cree First Nation, said he learned his son was nominated when he got a call from NAIAHF co-director Dan Ninham asking for a bio and photos. 

“We were really excited, hoping he gets in, because I think he deserves it,” Mervin said. Ninham called back later to inform him his son would be inducted. While the NAIAHF originally planned for an event in February for the roughly 80 inductees, they were forced to cancel the planned ceremony because of Covid concerns. 

“My wife and I have seen his commitment, dedication and focus from the time Jonathan had the dream at maybe 12 years old to play in the NHL. We’ve seen him make good decisions. We never had a curfew on Jonathan because he was so focused on doing everything he needed to make his goal. We’re so proud of him, and it’s totally well deserved,” Mervin shared. 

Mervin said that his son came home from playing hockey one day when he was 12, and dropped his hockey bag on the ground, announcing he wanted to play hockey for the rest of my life. “I remember standing there, looking at him, trying to find what I wanted to say. I said, there’s probably a million 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds all saying the same thing, but there’s only 700 NHL players,” said Mervin.

“When I asked him who is going to make it, he answered, ‘Whoever works the hardest.’” 

In 1992, Jonathan wrote an essay outlining how he wanted to play for the Sharks. By 2002, he had made it to the team. “His dream vision came through,” Mervin recounted.

Mervin said it was initially difficult when Jonathan moved away. Jonathan called and asked to come home, to which Mervin agreed. However, after talking for a while, Jonathan was convinced he could stick it out. 

Then after his time in San Jose, the culture shock continued, as Jonathan adapted to living and working in Croatia, Belarus and Slovakia. Mervin said he really enjoyed his time there with his wife and son.

Mervin added that it was important for Indigenous youth to have role models “because of the trauma we experienced as First Nation people. Society has told us we can’t do it because we’re First Nations, we’ve heard those messages for 500 years,” he said.

“But when children see athletes like Jonathan, they are given hope that if Jonathan can do it, they can do it.” 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.