Former San Jose Sharks star Jonathan Cheechoo hopes to make it in NHL again with St. Louis Blues
Posted: 08/07/2011 07:44:05 PM PDT
Updated: 08/08/2011 02:25:04 PM PDT
When Jonathan Cheechoo is out in San Jose, attention finds him the same way the puck once did when he was racking up goals for the Sharks."It's pretty cool that people are still coming up to me, wishing me the best and wondering what I'm up to," he said last week.
Here is what Cheechoo hopes he will be up to soon: Wearing a St. Louis Blues jersey when they open the season.
Cheechoo, who went from being the NHL's top goal-scorer in 2006 to out of the league just four years later, is trying to claw his way back. He believes a new training regimen can help him recapture the skating speed that made his magical 56-goal season possible.
"I still love the game, and I'm not that old yet," said Cheechoo, who turned 31 last month and continues to live in the South Bay. "I can still produce at the NHL level. The Blues know that I'm serious, and that's why they're giving me a shot."
St. Louis signed Cheechoo to a two-way contract, meaning he will be paid $650,000 if he makes the rebuilding Blues or much less if he plays at minor league Peoria.
Cheechoo is one of several veterans -- including former Sharks Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins -- the Blues have added this summer to a young roster.
"We look at him as a low-risk, high-reward scenario for us," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "We hope we can help him resurrect his career. We'd love it if he could be a dominant NHL player again. He's had such great success in our
league, and I'm sure he wants to reclaim his status."
Cheechoo's No. 14 jersey still is popular in the stands at Sharks games. He captivated fans with his nice-guy personality and endearing back story. A member of the Cree Nation, he emerged from remote Moose Factory, Ontario.
And he could score. He had 28 goals in a breakout season in 2003-04. But Cheechoo really got rolling in 2005-06, the season after the NHL lockout. When the Sharks made an early season trade to acquire passer extraordinaire Joe Thornton, Cheechoo benefited the most. He erupted with the only 50-goal season in team history and won the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for leading the league.
But after a follow-up 37-goal season in 2006-07, the Cheechoo Train went off the rails with a startling swiftness. His production plummeted to 23 goals and then to 12.
Never the most fluid skater, he had trouble adapting to the NHL's increasing speed. Double-hernia surgery in 2007 didn't help, either.
He was traded in 2009 with Milan Michalek to Ottawa in the Dany Heatley deal, but he had only five goals and nine assists when the Senators sent him to the minors and eventually bought out his contract.
Last year, after failing to stick with Dallas in a training-camp tryout, Cheechoo signed with the AHL's Worchester Sharks to showcase himself. But a hot start was slowed by a bruised kidney and a bulging disk, and he ended up with 18 goals and 29 assists.
Even though an NHL call never came, Cheechoo didn't think his career was done.
"It has been a couple of tough years," he said. "But I can still play."
The key, Cheechoo believes, is regaining some speed. So he has been working with Devan McConnell, a Stanford sports-performance coach, this summer.
"I look back at when I was younger, and I can see where I would get to spaces that maybe I haven't been getting to the last couple of years," Cheechoo said. "He's doing stuff with me that I haven't done before in offseason training. I feel like I'm moving a lot quicker, and hopefully it will make a difference."
Despite bouncing around North America, he and wife Ashley have kept their Willow Glen home. In early July, they welcomed the birth of their first child, son Jack.
But Cheechoo is intent on making St. Louis his next hockey residence.
"Jonathan's at that age where he probably wants to give it one more shot to prove that he can be a productive NHL player," the Blues' Armstrong said. "I'd say he's a perfect candidate to strive for the league's comeback player award."