Jonathan Cheechoo can still remember those first days away from home, away from his family, a 14-year-old kid crying himself to sleep most nights in a stranger's home.
His dad also remembers those nights. Mervin Cheechoo often cried himself to sleep too. As did Jonathan's mom, Carol Anne. There would be more tears spilled whenever their son used one of the calling cards his dad gave him and he dialled home to tell his parents that's where he really wanted to be.
"Those calls weren't easy," Mervin recalled the other day. "There were always lots of tears and I'd say, 'Jonathan, if you want to come home, come home. It's up to you.' But by the end of the conversation he'd always say, 'No, I'm going to stick it out. I'll be okay.' "
Mervin laughs. "Turns out it was a good decision."
There have been lots of great stories in the NHL this season. The return to form of Jaromir Jagr. The brilliance of Alexander Ovechkin. The greatness of Sid the Kid. But there hasn't been a warmer one than that of Jonathan Cheechoo, the Cree Indian from Moose Factory, Ont., who Thursday night scored his 52nd and 53rd goals of the season.
As of yesterday morning, Mr. Cheechoo was second in the goal-scoring race, one goal behind Mr. Jagr with two games to go for both players in the schedule. His San Jose Sharks, meantime, were fifth in the Western Conference and riding a hot streak heading into the playoffs.
While the revival of Joe Thornton's career in a Sharks uniform has garnered most of the attention around the team, it's been impossible to ignore the mind-blowing year his triggerman has had. Mr. Thornton and Mr. Cheechoo clicked from the moment the former Bruins centre arrived in San Jose in a Nov. 30 trade last year.
The one statistic that best illustrates the role Mr. Thornton has played in Mr. Cheechoo's success is this: Of Mr. Cheechoo's 53 goals, 46 were scored after Mr. Thornton's arrival. You could also argue that Mr. Cheechoo has had almost as great an impact on Mr. Thornton's remarkable season.
If Mr. Cheechoo doesn't convert Mr. Thornton's passes, Mr. Thornton doesn't get many of his assists. As of Friday, Mr. Thornton had 94 of them (36 of them off of goals by Mr. Cheechoo). Combined with his 28 goals, Mr. Thornton was tied with Mr. Jagr for the league leader in scoring.
Mr. Thornton, however, prefers to push away any attention in the direction of his soft-spoken teammate.
"It's a great story," Mr. Thornton says. "And one that should be told."
And a few lockers down in the visitors' dressing room at GM Place, Jonathan Cheechoo, 25, is talking about his unlikely journey, the one that took him from his tiny native village of 1,600 on a remote island in James Bay, a half-hour snowmobile ride from Moosonee, a 15-hour train ride north from Toronto.
And a world away from the Shark Tank, the glittering home of San Jose's NHL team that sits amid the million-dollar homes and high-tech office complexes of California's Silicon Valley.
"When I first left home to go play bantam in Timmins I didn't have a clue about anything," Mr. Cheechoo says. "I had to do laundry and everything and I'd never done it before because my mom had always done it.
"The first time I did it all my whites turned blue. I tried to fix it by washing them with bleach but I forgot to add water. It was just pure bleach and it destroyed all my clothes."
Being away from his family never got easier. Not when he was 15 or 16 or 17 playing in the Ontario Hockey League for the Belleville Bulls. He never stopped missing his parents and brother and sister, never stopped missing the hunting trips he used to take with Mervin and all Mervin's brothers and Mervin's dad, George.
Whenever he got a few days off at Christmas he'd make the long trek home, even if it was for only a day or two. When it came time to head back to the big city there were always more tears.
"Yeah," he recalls. "Christmas was always the hardest. It never got any easier."
Jonathan Cheechoo will tell you that he wouldn't be where he is today without his parents. Without Ted Nolan too.
Mr. Nolan, aboriginal himself, attended a hockey school in Moose Factory when Jonathan was 13. Then a coach with the Buffalo Sabres, Mr. Nolan saw some talent in the kid but he knew no one would ever see it if he stayed on the reserve. It was Mr. Nolan who encouraged the Cheechoos to allow their son to move to Timmins to play bantam.
"There are a lot of great native hockey players," Jonathan Cheechoo says in an interview. "But so many are reluctant to leave their families and communities. Our families are very close and tight knit. A lot of kids have a hard time surviving outside them. Or they'll leave and then come home after a month.
"That's why you probably don't see as many native people in the NHL. It's not that there aren't lots of talented native players, there are. They just find it hard to leave home to get the kind of exposure and training and competition you need to get to have any realistic chance of making it in the NHL."
Mervin Cheechoo agrees. Now a pastor of a native church in Sudbury, he also works for Rising Up, a counselling group for aboriginals.
He believes making that break from families is sometimes essential if native kids are going to learn how to handle adversity and face the many different types of hardship that life throws at you, whether you're a hockey player or a teacher.
Some of the adversity his son faced came in the form of prejudice and racist taunts that would be hurled at him in different hockey arenas.
"I'd ask him about that a lot," he says. "It's sad to say but it's a reality of the world we live in, even today. We never got into specifics about what people were saying, I just told him to always be proud of who he was. I told him that people who spoke that way often didn't feel good about themselves so needed to put other people down in order to make themselves feel better.
"I told him it was not his problem but theirs. We tried to instill in him to have pride in his native heritage. Never be embarrassed by that."
By the time Jonathan Cheechoo was playing major junior hockey in Belleville, bus loads of friends and family would often make the trek down from Moose Factory, a hockey-crazy town if there ever was one, to watch him play. They would all hang around after the game to talk to him. The children of the village who were along for the ride regarded him as a hero.
He was just 18. He was happy to be a good kid, to keep his nose clean, to never embarrass his parents, family or tribe, but being a role model seemed a bit much.
"Back then it was a bit of a burden," says the younger Mr. Cheechoo, who would be drafted 29th overall by the Sharks in the 1998 Entry Draft. "Now I'm a little older, more mature, and I don't mind. I like talking to kids, meeting groups of school child from native schools like I will today.
"If somehow my presence makes them feel better about their lives, their chances, whatever, hey, I don't mind talking to them. I consider it an honour, really."
Sharks coach Ron Wilson has been around enough 50 goal scorers to know what they look like and think like and act like. There was Pavel Bure in Vancouver, Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya in Anaheim and Peter Bondra in Washington.
"They all made it look so easy," Mr. Wilson says about the ability of those players to score goals.
"Cheech [Cheechoo]makes it look so goddamn hard."
Even Mr. Cheechoo acknowledges he wasn't born with the natural gifts of a goal scorer. He's got where he is through hard work. Everyone says that. When Mr. Wilson first saw Mr. Cheechoo he figured he would be a third-liner in the NHL with the potential -- potential -- of maybe one day sneaking onto a second line somewhere.
"You see him and he stumbles around and he looks off balance but he never falls down," Mr. Wilson says. "But then you see that drive and hunger to score. All those guys I've had who scored 50 goals had that same thing, that something in their eyes as they got closer to that red light.
"There's a drive they have that I can't explain, maybe they can't either. They want to score so bad they'll do anything."
Doug Wilson, the Sharks GM, says the most impressive thing about Mr. Cheechoo's season hasn't been the number of goals he's scored, but the number that were game winners.
"That to me is the most impressive thing," Mr. Wilson says. "When the game is on the line he's come through."
Joe Thornton can't explain something as real as the chemistry two hockey players sometimes develop. He can't explain why he and Mr. Cheechoo -- who recently signed a five-year, $15-million (U.S.) contract extension -- have made magic this season, but he does offer these observations about his line mate.
"There are a couple of things," Mr. Thornton says. "He never misses the net with his shot and that's huge. He's also a right hand shot and I like playing with right hand shots. I never catch him off guard with a pass; he's always waiting for it. And he usually always gets the meat of his blade on the puck and he usually fires it up top in one of the corners. As a goalie it's pretty tough to stop the guy."
It's the spring hunt in Moose Factory.
The schools are closed and the boys and their fathers and their uncles and grandparents and just about everyone in town has left for their hunting camps. They are after geese -- as many as they can get.
"Jonathan's Grandpa [George]got two yesterday," Beatrice Cheechoo, Jonathan's grandmother, says over the phone from Moose Factory.
"Jonathan loved to go hunting with his grandpa. He used to tell me that when he finished high school he was going to live in the bush in Moose Factory and hunt all the time. When I think about that now I just laugh."
She is a proud grandma. She watched Jonathan score his 50th goal on television thanks to her satellite dish. She screamed and screamed. She wanted to get up and dance but her 72-year-old knees wouldn't allow it.
She turned on CBC radio the other day to hear two kids from Moose Factory talking about Jonathan and how he has become a role model for them.
"Most of the kids in town just do drugs and alcohol," she quotes the boys as saying.
Chief Patricia Faries, the first female chief of the Moose Cree tribe in Moose Factory, acknowledges there is a lot of social dysfunction in her village. There is a lot of drug and alcohol abuse among kids and adults. She says in a telephone interview that the impact of Jonathan Cheechoo's achievements on the community cannot be overstated. "Because it all becomes real for the kids," Chief Faries says. "It shows them that anything is possible and not just in hockey. It shows them that we weren't meant to abuse drugs and booze, that there are other things out there to pursue.
"It's about having a dream and chasing it. It's real with Jonathan, we're seeing it. It's all positive and healthy and can only help us here. He's a star and he's from Moose Factory.
"Who would have imagined?"
Reggie Leach: The Riverton Rifle
He was known as the Riverton Rifle. Reggie Leach might have been a scrawny kid from the reserve in Riverton, Man., but on a pair of skates he had amazing speed and a blistering shot to match.
There were other native Indians to precede Mr. Leach to the National Hockey League -- the chief, George Armstrong, among them -- but no one matched his offensive skills to that point.
Originally a Boston Bruin, Mr. Leach was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers from the California Golden Seals in May of 1974 and was immediately paired with his old junior teammate Bobby Clarke. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.
Mr. Leach would be the first aboriginal NHLer to crack the 50-goal barrier. He scored 61 in the 1975-76 season -- the year the Flyers won their second Stanley Cup -- and 50 in 1979-80. But behind the championship banners and high-scoring seasons, lurked a dark side of the scoring phenom the public didn't see.
The Riverton Rifle had a major drinking problem, one that was so bad he often played games drunk. He once confided that he showed up for one game so hammered Flyer coach Fred Shero wasn't going to let him play. Mr. Clarke pleaded with the coach to change his mind. He did. Mr. Leach would score five times on six shots in the game.
Eventually, however, the hard life caught up to Mr. Leach. His game went into the tank. He got a divorce, lost money. And then his doctor said he would soon be dead unless he gave up the bottle. He did.
In recent years Mr. Leach has run a small landscaping company in the Philadelphia area and also played in charity hockey games. He also spends several days a year on reserves across Canada telling native children his story.
Mr. Leach once told me. "I tell them what alcohol can do to you. How it hurt me. My big thing is choices. We all have choices to make. Everyone has dreams and goals and everyone has to make choices in pursuit of them."
While Mr. Leach was the first native-born hockey player to score 50 goals in the NHL, he wouldn't be the only one.
Bryan Trottier, a Métis born in Val Marie, Sask., would go on to have the most distinguished NHL career of any aboriginal to make the big leagues.
Mr. Trottier would score 50 goals in 1981-82 with the New York Islanders, a team with which he won four Stanley Cups. He would win two more as a player, with Pittsburgh, and another as an assistant coach with Colorado. He led the league in scoring in 1978-79 and be voted the league's most valuable player.
A Hall of Fame career if there ever was one.
-- Gary Mason