SAN JOSE — Terence Tootoo, it seemed, had overcome.

At 22, a National Hockey League career was on the horizon, a dream fulfilled for most any Canadian boy but an achievement of great cultural significance for a child of the Inuit Nation raised within a slap shot of the Arctic Circle.

Terence and his younger brother, Jordin, were on track to be the first Inuit natives to reach the NHL. But only Jordin, now a member of the Nashville Predators, would make it.

On Aug. 28, 2002, Terence was stopped by police in Brandon, Manitoba, and charged with driving while impaired. Shortly after arriving at the house where he was staying, he walked into the bushes and shot himself in the head.

Terence left a note imploring Jordin to succeed. Speculation at the time was that Terence took his life in the belief that by being arrested, he had shamed not only himself but also the Inuit people who had hung on his every accomplishment.

Six weeks after the tragedy, right wing Jonathan Cheechoo made his NHL debut for the San Jose Sharks, the culmination of a saga similar in many ways to the one Terence Tootoo ultimately had been unable to endure.

Cheechoo became the first member of the Moose CreeFirst Nations to reach the NHL, battling his way through prejudice and loneliness as he made his unlikely journey.

"I set a lot of goals for myself growing up," Cheechoo said. "It just gives you something to work hard toward.


Advertisement

"

Growing up in Moose Factory, Ontario — a remote town of 2,000 — Cheechoo could not possibly have imagined the fruits of his youthful labor.

Monday night, Cheechoo recorded his fourth hat trick of the season in a vital 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. With 40 goals, the 25-year-old Cheechoo is four shy of matching Owen Nolan's club record for goals in a season, a pursuit that will continue Thursday night when the Sharks host the St. Louis Blues.

"He wants to score," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said, "as much as anything he does in life."

It was at the age of 12 that Cheechoo decided to pursue a career in hockey. But he had no idea how to go about it.

No Moose Cree had ever reached the NHL, and living in Moose Factory is almost like living on another planet. To get to Toronto, for instance, you take a boat or helicopter off the island — or drive across the frozen river in the winter. Once on the mainland, it takes eight more hours in the car.

A crucial moment for Cheechoo was a visit to Moose Factory by Ted Nolan, a First Nations Canadian and a noted junior coach who was running a hockey school. Ted Nolan advised Cheechoo on the long road ahead, and at 14, Cheechoo left home to follow his heart.

"My parents were behind me the whole way," Cheechoo said. "They even bought me a calling card so I could call home anytime I wanted. I used that a lot my first month away."

Cheechoo played in four cities the next four years. But for a young Native Canadian in new surroundings, there was much more to deal with than simple homesickness.

"I heard a few racial taunts when I was going up through the minor hockey system," he recalled. "It was mainly from fans."

Ted Nolan, the NHL's Coach of the Year with the Buffalo Sabres in 1997, understands only too well.

"You get racially taunted, and you cry yourself to sleep, and you miss home," said Ted Nolan, now the junior coach in Moncton, New Brunswick. "You're wondering why people are treating you the way they are. It's just hurtful."

Cheechoo persevered. He had left home to play hockey, and the obstacles he concerned himself with were the opponents on the ice, not the ignorant people off it.

But there was another burden common to Native Canadian players: the hopes of his people.

Terence Tootoo's junior jersey had once been auctioned for $10,000. As for Cheechoo, there was always an entourage — 250 members of his community traveling to see him play a junior game or nearly that many attending the 1998 NHL Draft to watch as the Sharks chose him in the second round.

"It's a lot of pressure to be under," Cheechoo acknowledged. 

Perhaps this is why Cheechoo is unfazed by NHL pressure, as evidenced by the fact that he is among the league leaders with seven game-winning goals.

Being the standard bearer for your people? Now that's pressure.

"To see Jonathan doing what he's doing now, he's just going to inspire more kids and more people," Ted Nolan said. "This is a big thing."

But if you met him and did not know who he was, you would figure he was a fourth-liner.

"He has no idea on a daily basis how good a hockey player he is," said reserve defenseman Jim Fahey, perhaps Cheechoo's best friend on the Sharks.

No one realized he was this good until Joe Thornton arrived three months ago in a trade with Boston. After scoring only seven goals in the season's first 24 games, Cheechoo has scored 33 in 39 games since Thornton became his center.

"A pass never catches him off-guard," said Thornton, who is planning a Moose Factory fishing trip for the summer. "He's always ready to shoot."

Cheechoo has bigger plans for his community than bringing Thornton in for a visit. Last month, Cheechoo signed a five-year, $15-million contract extension, a deal he views as a charitable opportunity, details of which will probably become public in the coming months.

"There are a lot of kids having trouble because their parents really don't have the finances," Cheechoo said. "I know if it wasn't for the community in Moose Factory, I wouldn't have had this opportunity.

"They raised a lot of money for me before my first year of junior to work on my skating. I think that's what got me drafted. A little help like that goes a long way. Anything I can do to further someone's dreams, I'd jump on the chance."