-by Dave Cunning
Jonathan Cheechoo hasn’t exactly been making headlines over the last few years, but that isn’t because he hasn’t been around. After his award winning 56 goal season in 2005-06 with the San Jose Sharks, Cheechoo’s point production steadily headed south, along with his health – to the point where he was bought out of his last NHL contract, and relegated to the minors. After spending the last four seasons with four different AHL clubs, Cheechoo has resurfaced with Medveščak Zagreb of Croatia in the KHL — the league that many consider to be the NHL’s top rival. At the moment, he looks like the Jonathan Cheechoo of old on the scoresheet — leading his team in points, and even wearing the captain’s “C” on his jersey.
Cheechoo graciously spoke with me recently about his KHL experience, the league’s reputation, his battle with injuries, playing with Joe Thornton, his thoughts on returning to the NHL, and a whole lot more.
First off, Barry Brust was nice enough to put this interview together, how has Barry been as a goalie for you guys so far? He broke Johnny Bower’s 55 year old AHL shutout streak last season with the Abbotsford Heat, and has nine wins and three shutouts for you guys as of now this season.
Cheechoo: “He’s been great. He’s stepped in and made some big saves, and kept us on our longest winning streak of the season. He’s definitely a bit of an unorthodox goalie as far as the way goalies go today, but he gets the job done. He’s pretty solid. He competes hard. That’s one thing you don’t see in some goalies – some goalies are technically sound but you don’t really see a compete level in them. They’ll say ‘I was in the right spot, and if you beat me, you beat me’, whereas he’s passionate about making saves. You don’t see that a lot.”
Why did you choose Medveščak Zagreb in Croatia over others, say HV71 in Sweden who you played for in 04-05 during the NHL lockout, or any of the other teams and countries you could have had your pick of with your background?
Cheechoo: “For me it was just opportunity. We’d been on holidays in Croatia about four or five years ago and really enjoyed it. For me, the last three years or so I was trying to get back into the NHL and in those spots I really didn’t have my family around all that much. So, for me it was important to pick a spot where I could have them with me, we could enjoy it together, and I was still able to play at a top level against top competition.”
How is the KHL? Obviously it’s a good place if people like Ilya Kovalchuk are willing to leave huge NHL contracts to play there, but there are also some stories of teams not paying players, and obviously the facilities and materials can at times be questionable looking at the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl airplane incident – how has your experience been with your team? What have you seen or heard as far as horror stories from other guys in the league? Is any of it true, or is it all just made up?
Cheechoo: “I think obviously some of the things in the stories must have happened in the past. But since I’ve been here, the word I’ve got is that the KHL hires an insurance firm so that if you’re not paid after a certain amount of time by your team, they pay the salary out of the KHL insurance that they have on the contracts. Nowadays I’m not sure how true not being paid is, but I can only speak for this team. I’ve only been on this team and guys I’ve talked to, for the most part, everyone’s been paid. I think there are a few stories like that though. For us here playing in Zagreb, we fly on Croatian Airlines, so we rent the actual planes that fly everyone around out of Croatia anyway, so that’s pretty much as safe as you’re going to get. Things maybe will happen that are out of your control. I can’t really speak for the Russian teams; some things may be different over their way. But I’ve heard of guys that have their own private jets and stuff like that to fly them around, so kind of on par with an NHL team in that regard.”
So when the opportunity arose for you to sign with Zagreb, were any of those stories in the back of your mind, or did you think that as a new team that was probably set up pretty well financially, it was a low-risk situation to join them?
Cheechoo: “For me, I’d heard rumblings about the past, but I talked to a few guys. I talked to Aaron Fox, the GM here, and was pretty much assured that was all in the past. The KHL’s looking to make a good name for themselves here with the team as well, so to get players, you can’t fall behind in payments or anything like that and I think they knew that and that was a pretty big reassurance to hear that, coming from them. Anytime you go somewhere new it’s a leap of faith too. For us, we felt it was time to move on and try something new, and I still wanted to play at the highest level I could. For me, I saw the KHL as being where you’ve got a lot of guys that could be playing in the NHL playing in this league. I figured this was the next best league, outside of that.”
Is the KHL an even level to the NHL these days, or is it still a step back? Obviously there is a lot of talent there, but where do you see the league right now, comparatively?
Cheechoo: “It’s a pretty solid, competitive league. Everyone has a chance to win every night. Over here, you see a lot of games where top teams are getting upset by the weaker teams. That’s the key to a good league, whereas some of the lesser leagues you know that there’s this team coming in that you can beat no problem. It’s almost like a point night. Even in the AHL you’ll be playing a young team and it’s pretty much like you should beat them. Whereas over here, there’s maybe one team every year that doesn’t do so well. But for the most part, every team’s in every game, they’re tight games, occasionally you’ll get the blowouts, but for the most part there’s two good teams playing each other.”
What about just life in Croatia and Russia, is it a challenge with culture shock or the language barrier for you and your family? Have you picked up the language?
Cheechoo: “I picked up a bit of Croatian, not a lot. I’ve got the key words down, but other than that I think my son’s picking it up faster than I am. But it’s been great. I’ve enjoyed it. We’re pretty adventurous as a family, and this is a thing where we looked at it and said, ‘we can have fun over there, there’s a lot of stuff to see and do’. My wife’s taking advantage while we’re on road trips, going around travelling a little bit and we’ve travelled a little when we’ve had breaks. It’s not too far off. For me, the hardest part about moving here was probably learning to drive stick. I hadn’t done that in about ten years, so re-learning to drive stick was probably the hardest part. Pretty much everybody speaks English or can somehow communicate with you, through sign language and stuff, because they get enough tourists here I guess.”
Do a lot of people in that country know who you are from your NHL career and what you did there, or do you have some anonymity in that part of the world?
Cheechoo: “A lot of people know who I am. I got a lot of press when I signed and before I came over here. They’re pretty knowledgeable fans too and they’re pretty hard supporters. Coming over here, the one thing they told me was to be prepared, everyone is going to know who you are and everything you do. It’s not that big of a deal, everyone’s pretty respectful, and they let you go about your business. You may get a few kids asking for autographs but that’s something you should enjoy.”
You’re currently first in team goals, third in team scoring, top 40 in league scoring…have you had to make any adjustments to your game to be successful over there? Do you feel pressure to put up big numbers as an import with an NHL and award winning background?
Cheechoo: “I’ve felt great. I put in a good summer of work before I came over here, and then we had quite a long training camp to get ready, so coming into the season I felt strong, felt ready, and I was healthy, which has been half the battle for the last six or seven years of just trying to stay healthy. So far, so good. In terms of pressure, I probably put more pressure on myself to score – because I love to score – than anyone could possibly put on me. It’s one of those things that I take pride in, being able to score. Coming over here, the main adjustment was just the big ice, getting used to it, and its different angles. You go to take a shot from what would be the slot, and it’s a little farther out than what it would normally be. It’s just compiling those things, and getting used to them. I figure I have. I feel a lot better playing on the big ice now. At home, we have small ice anyway, so that’s the challenge – adjusting back and forth.
Speaking of scoring, and to turn back the clock a little, in 05-06 you won the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer with 56 goals, lead the NHL in game winning goals with 11, and set franchise records for the San Jose Sharks – most goals in a season (56), power play goals in a season (24), and hat tricks in a season (5). Most reports assume that you were simply the benefactor of Joe Thornton that year. Do you agree with that notion, or do you feel like that is a slight to you and what your talent allowed you to accomplish that year?
Cheechoo: “It’s alright, I don’t mind. Joe is a talented player. He was great to play with. I think the thing that made us play so well together was that I love to score and shoot, and he’s a think first pass player. He always comes in and he’s thinking pass before he thinks shoot. Then if his passing options aren’t open, he’ll shoot and he’s still a threat, so it keeps the goalie honest. That helps open up a little more time and space, and the goalie has to respect him a little more. He got like 20 goals a year as well, he wasn’t just a passer. Playing with him was pretty amazing, but he’s played with a lot of great scorers. I think I got the most goals out of anyone that’s played with him, so I did do a little bit of the work myself.”
Have you found anyone since then that you’ve clicked with on the level that you did with Joe? Your numbers did start to decline after the 05-06 season; by 09-10, your production was cut to 14 points with Ottawa and you were bought out of your contract. In your opinion, how did that happen? Do you mostly attribute it to injuries?
Cheechoo: “I think injuries played a big part in it. That was the only year I played in all the games. The injuries took their toll on me and my body. I hurt my knees – my MCL’s three times each – and after a while, it takes a toll on you. All the injuries add up and slow you down a little bit, but I felt I regrouped well in the minors and started to feel strong again. Down there, I don’t think I really played with anybody that had quite the passing ability of guys that I played with in the past. Playing a little bit with Patrick O’Sullivan, we clicked well together when we were in Peoria, but other than that I never really played with a pure passer since then. But now over here, it seems like I’m playing on a good line — me and Matt Murley have clicked quite a bit, and Billy Thomas. Those two guys are pretty good players that look to pass the puck, so it’s been fun being the shooter-type guy on the line again.”
When you were playing in the minors, did you think about making it back to the NHL someday? Do you aim for or envision an NHL return in the future, or are you content with where you are in the KHL?
Cheechoo: “To get back to the NHL would be the ultimate thing. That’s the top league in the world. But for me, I work hard when I’m down. I love playing hockey. I’m not going to cheat the game. I always play hard, wherever I am. I play to win. If I can get another shot at it, then I can get another shot at it. If not, I’m going to work my hardest for whatever team I’m playing on, and try to win. I love winning, and it sucks to lose. Being able to be part of a team and playing is a big thing for me, but I want to be able to produce at the same time. I want to bring my best game out. I think the only way I can really help the team is if I’m out there giving my all.”
Do any of those old injuries affect you today, or are you totally healthy nowadays?
Cheechoo: “Everything’s good. I felt good when I went down to Oklahoma City last year. I hurt my back two years ago and I missed some games, but last year I sat out half the year and I think it helped heal pretty much everything. When I came back the second half of the season in Oklahoma City, I felt healthy and put up some good numbers. Over here I’ve been healthy and playing well. On a four game road trip I felt best on the fourth game, so I think I’m feeling healthy right now.”
What are the big differences in the culture and atmosphere of the KHL in the dressing room, arena, in the stands, amongst the team? What makes that experience special and so much different than North America?
Cheechoo: “They have a real passion for the game, is one thing. You don’t get a lot of people that just happen upon the game. They’re real supporters of the team. There aren’t a lot of huge arenas, there are smaller arenas, and there are people that really come out to support the team that have done it for years. It’s pretty amazing. You’re a lot closer to the fan base. You walk in with them, you walk out with them, there’s less separation between the players and fans, so it’s kind of cool in that way. You’re playing for them, and they’re out there rooting for you, so it’s quite a thing to be a part of.”
What has been your favorite moment of the experience so far? You scored the first KHL goal in Zagreb history – does that or something else stand out as a big moment for you?
Cheechoo: “I think we were viewed as pretty big underdogs coming in here, no one really thought we’d do anything, so to come out with a big statement win right away, and to get that first goal was pretty special, and something a lot of these fans will remember, and something that made them excited to be part of the KHL. Getting that first goal was probably the biggest moment so far.”