This article was originally written in August, 2015.
In 2005-06, a 25-year-old native of Moose Factory, Ontario, one of the most northern settlements in the Province located at the base of Hudson Bay, shattered expectations and won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer.
Four year later, he had played in his last NHL game.
In case you remain unaware of who this player is, it is none other than the 6-foot, 200-pound Jonathan Cheechoo, a veteran of seven NHL seasons and over 400 games played.
In most cases, players talented enough to win such a prestigious trophy typically enjoy long, prosperous NHL careers. However, in Cheechoo’s case, a once promising career quickly deteriorated, forcing Cheechoo to leave North America in pursuit of a new career in professional hockey.
Before we explore where Cheechoo is now, it is important to first examine his past in order to understand exactly how he arrived at his current situation.
In his first season with the Bulls, Cheechoo was a prime offensive threat, scoring 31 goals and adding 45 assists, with his 76 points good for third best on the team. Following his solid rookie season, Cheechoo was selected 29th overall in the 1998 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks, who at the time were heavily criticized for selecting Cheechoo so early.
Jonathan Cheechoo. (Photo courtesy of Justin Yamada/ Flikr.)
Following his NHL Draft selection, Cheechoo showed continued improvement in the 1998-99 season, netting 35 goals and 47 assists – an 82-point total, which was again third best on the roster. Further, in the playoffs, Cheechoo scored 15 goals in a mere 21 games, while he added an additional 15 assists for 30 points, four goals of which were scored in Game 7 of the OHL Championship, securing a 9-2 Bulls victory.
In his final OHL season in 1999-00, Cheechoo was again an elite offensive threat, leading the Bulls in goals (45), as well as in points (91). He also amassed 102 minutes in penalties, indicating his physical style of play, a nature which unfortunately led to it’s fair share of injuries.
With 193 games, 111 goals, 138 assists and 249 points under his belt, Cheechoo’s incredibly successful junior career had come to an end, and it became time for Cheechoo to begin his professional hockey career.
Jonathan Cheechoo’s Professional Career
Jonathan Cheechoo (Elliot/Flickr)
In 2000-01, Cheechoo officially began his professional hockey career, starting his first season with the Kentucky Thoroughblades, the Sharks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate at the time.
In his first professional season, Cheechoo did not disappoint, carrying over his junior success into the AHL game, scoring 32 goals and 66 points across 75 games. Despite this success, Cheechoo saw little ice-time in the playoffs and was often a healthy scratch.
In 2001-02, the Sharks’ AHL affiliate was re-located to Cleveland as the Barons. Cheechoo continued his strong play, accumulating 21 goals and 46 points in 53 games, although a leg injury shortened Cheechoo’s strong season.
Come 2002-03, after an additional nine games with the Barons, Cheechoo was promoted to the NHL by the Sharks. In his rookie season, Cheechoo played 66 games, scoring nine goals and seven assists for a total of 16 points, having played limited minutes primarily on the team’s third and fourth lines.
However, in 2003-04, Cheechoo enjoyed a breakout season. Thanks largely in part to an intense offseason workout plan, which focused strictly on adding additional size and strength, Cheechoo scored 28 goals with the Sharks, a total which tied him for the team lead with Patrick Marleau.
In the lockout season, Cheechoo played 20 games with HV71 Jonkoping of the Swedish Elite League, scoring five goals.
Jonathan Cheechoo and the Arrival of Joe Thornton
On Nov. 30, 2005, the Sharks pulled off a massive trade, one which is arguably one of the worst in NHL history. Fortunately for the Sharks, this trade was horrendous for the Boston Bruins and fantastic for them, as they landed a young, big bodied, franchise center ice-man in Joe Thornton, who turned out to be a consistent offensive producer and exceptional playmaker.
Paired with the incredible game-changing skills of Thornton, Cheechoo’s production soared to new and incredible heights. In his first season alongside Thornton, Cheechoo netted an amazing 56 goals, capturing the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL leader in goals scored, while Thornton amassed 72 assists in only 58 games played with the Sharks, and 92 for the entire season.
However, following this fantastic year, Cheechoo’s production began to slip despite still producing solid numbers.
In 2006-07, Cheechoo scored 37 goals and 69 points, very good production despite a small decline. However, in 2007-08, Cheechoo’s game began to decline at a greater rate, scoring 23 goals and a mere 37 points; this is offense unlike that which he had produced just two seasons prior.
Joe Thornton. (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)
Then, in 2008-09, Cheechoo managed to score a dismal 12 goals and 29 points with the Sharks, a mark which was good for just 11th overall on the team. Following his steady decline from superstar status to third liner, the Sharks subsequently packaged Cheechoo off to Ottawa, a mere three seasons removed from winning the Rocket Richard.
Given a fresh start in Ottawa, Cheechoo failed to return to the form he displayed in 2005-06, completing yet another highly disappointing season of just five goals and 14 points. As a result, the Senators demoted Cheechoo to the AHL, where he did not fare much better.
A Return to Form
Jonathan Cheechoo. (Dan4th on Flickr.)
Having been waived by the Senators, Cheechoo played three consecutive seasons in the AHL, one with each of the Sharks, St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers’ minor league affiliates, where he began to find success once again.
In those three AHL seasons ranging from 2010 to 2013, Cheechoo scored 56 goals, 79 assists and 135 points in 160 total games, production similar to his offensive output at the NHL level.
As a result, Cheechoo packed his bags and headed East when an opportunity in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) presented itself.
Jonathan Cheechoo’s KHL Career
In 2013-14, Cheechoo signed a one-year contract with Zagreb Medvescak of the KHL. As a first-year player in the KHL, Cheechoo went on to lead his team on the ice and in the dressing room, as the team captain, while scoring 19 goals and 19 assists for 38 points in 54 games.
The following year, Cheechoo signed with Minsk Dynamo. Although he did not lead his team in scoring, he had a much stronger year offensively, scoring 24 goals and 24 assists for 48 points in 49 games played. He still plays for them today.
Will Jonathan Cheechoo Ever Return?
Could Jonathan Cheechoo, the definition of a one-hit NHL wonder, ever make his return to North America and the NHL?
At the age of 37, the chances of Cheechoo making an NHL return are increasingly slim, as the market for a veteran forward is limited largely to clubs seeking additional roster depth in the hunt for the postseason. However, Cheechoo has had his fair share of both success and experience, making him a potentially valuable asset to a young, rebuilding NHL team at a fairly inexpensive cost.
Although his career fizzled out following a brief period of greatness, a return to the NHL this late in his career is highly unlikely, despite the nostalgia associated with his presence.
Regardless, it is great to once again see Cheechoo finding success, as his elite skill set make him a truly dangerous and unique professional hockey player.