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The fanfare of winning the Rocket Richard Trophy after scoring 56 goals in 2005-06 may be a distant memory for Jonathan Cheechoo. But he is reinventing himself in the KHL nowadays, establishing himself as a leader of the newcomer to the league, Medvescak from Zagreb.
Cheechoo leads his team in scoring with 32 points in 44 games for the club, and was also named a starter in the KHL All Star Game last weekend.
A trade target, Cheechoo reportedly turned down a move to Mike Keenan’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk, with the Russian club presumably offering $500,000 in compensation.
“It’s been really great for me in the KHL,” Cheechoo told Puck Daddy. “I am playing in the second best league after the NHL. It’s great for me to play at this level of competition with so many guys here who have played in the NHL. Some of the guys who have played in the NHL came here to play in their home countries, and for me it is great because I crave that competitive spirit myself.”
Q. Were you famous in Russia and in the KHL when you got there?
CHEECHOO: “I don’t think a lot of people knew who I was. There were those in Croatia who knew who I was. I think they saw some articles about me. Just overall Croatians are huge hockey fans. They respect you, but they demand that you play well. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Your team has a lot of North American players. Is it by design?
“I think Zagreb got a break this year because the team was new to the KHL, and they were told they could get whoever they needed. I think it just so happened that a lot of North Americans came over and we’re on the same team. It’s pretty cool. I don’t think you will find a lot of teams who are like a family like we have in Zagreb.”
Did it make it easier to play for you because there were so many North Americans?
“I think it did make it easier to adapt coming over. I know a lot of people are apprehensive when they come over to a different country. I think it made everyone’s transition a lot smoother. And I think that it is showing on the ice, as we are a little but more comfortable, maybe. And the style of hockey we play, we try to bring a little bit of North American. Our coach is also North American, so I think you would have that style no matter which team he coaches. But the players who are coming over are smart players, a little bit older player. A lot of us played in the NHL, but we still realized that we had to adapt to play in this league. If you try to play North American style and stick to it, you will end up being eaten up pretty quickly on big ice. There was a lot of learning while you go.”
Did you experience a lot of culture shock when you came over?
“A little bit. But it wasn’t too bad, actually. I have dealt with that since I was 14 years old when I left home for myself. I never had big culture shock. I just rolled with the punches. It was tough maybe for my family. They hadn’t been out of America to live: my wife came up to Canada to live with me when I got traded. But other than that she hadn’t left home. Obviously some things are different. But just like with anything else you learn to adapt. But she is a pretty flexible person, and for us it was an easy transition.”
Everyone has a perception of the KHL before they come over. What has been the biggest myth that was busted for you personally?
“I am not sure I had that many. I talked to a few guys who had played here, and they talked about the bigger ice surface. I guess the biggest myth for me was that I was told I wasn’t going to get hit as much as I did in North America, but you get hit just as much. It’s pretty constant and is the same over here as it is over there. That was probably the biggest myth for me.”
What is the media coverage like comparing to Canada, for example?
“I think it’s pretty similar. I was comparing fans over here to fans over there, when I was talking to another journalist, and fans over here are so knowledgeable. It’s like playing in front of Canadian fans. Pretty much everyone has grown up around the game and knows the game. They are very passionate and it’s great to play in front of them.”
January 15 is the trade deadline in the KHL, and there are whispers you may get traded. Is it on your mind at all?
“I try not to think about that part of the game. I let my representatives handle that. I try to concentrate on playing my best and do my job.”
KHL contracts are not really guaranteed when comparing terms to NHL contracts. Does this create additional pressure on players in the KHL?
“For me, I don’t really think about that. Maybe others do, I am not sure. My motivation is how I am playing out there. I try to play at the highest level, regardless of whether the team wants to keep me or not. I would be disappointed with myself if I didn’t give it my best every night. So, that part doesn’t really affect me too much.”
What is the buzz like about the Olympics in the KHL?
“It is pretty comparable to Canada and the United States. I think being the hosts this year there is more pressure on the Russians. I think the Russians expect to win and to do really well at the Olympics. There is definitely a lot of excitement for the team over here. It should be fun to watch.”
You have been doing well in the KHL. But is there still a dream of coming back to the NHL?
“You never know. Obviously, it was my dream to play in the NHL growing up. But now that I am over here, I am having fun too. I have great respect for the League, and it’s been a great league to play in. Of course if someone came calling from over there, I’d have to think about it. But as of right now my focus is on playing in the KHL. I don’t really think about things until they are actually in front of me and what can actually happen.”