- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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You can imagine Jonathan Cheechoo's reaction, after winning the Rocket Richard Trophy with 56 goals in 2005-06, if he had been told he'd be playing hockey in Croatia eight years later.
"It's something I wouldn't have expected for sure, but everyone goes down a different road in life and I'm just having fun with it," Cheechoo, 33, told ESPN.com this weekend from the KHL all-star celebrations in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Cheechoo followed up that magical season with the San Jose Sharks with a 37-goal campaign in 2006-07 but then began a precipitous drop because of a series of knee problems and a nagging hernia injury that took a toll on his body and, obviously, his production.
Soon he was plying his trade in the AHL, first with Binghamton in 2009-10, then Worcester in 2010-11, Peoria in 2011-12 and Oklahoma City in the second half of last season. In OKC, he felt as good as he had in a long time, scoring 13 goals in 35 AHL games and feeling renewed.
"I had a healthy year last year and last summer decided with my family to come over here and give it a shot in the KHL," said Cheechoo. "A few other players had done it this year. I feel really good about it, I feel good about my game now. It's really just been a lot of fun."
He's put up 18 goals and 14 assists in 43 games with Zagreb Medvescak, and also scored in Saturday's KHL All-Star Game. It's as happy as he's been for a while.
"Croatia's been great. I brought my family over. Zagreb is a great town and it's been a lot of fun playing for the team," he said. "Playing in the KHL has been a good experience for me, I've enjoyed it. It's great competition, a good level of play. Luckily, our team has been doing well and I've reaped the benefits of that as well. My teammates are playing really well."
Former New York Rangers assistant coach Mike Pelino, now an assistant on Mike Keenan's staff for Magnitogorsk, told ESPN.com via email from Russia that Cheechoo has been a key player for Zagreb, which he says has been a real surprise team in its first year in the league, sitting in a playoff spot at the All-Star break.
"Jonathan is a scoring threat every time he steps on the ice and he has developed into a real leader for his team," Pelino wrote. "He is a player any team in our league would love to have."
"We're an expansion team, so I don't think anybody expected too much from us, and I think we have the smallest payroll in the league," said Cheechoo. "But we've played well as a team. It's a pretty good group of guys."
It's clear that after the grind of the AHL for three and a half years, where for the most part he was on his own, having his 2-year-old son and his wife with him living in Zagreb while he's earning his living has been a welcome change.
"He's been loving over it here," Cheechoo said of his son. "He gets to watch all the games and I get to play hockey with him every day. It's great. ...
"My wife and I have always been pretty adventurous travel-wise, we had actually been to Croatia before," added Cheechoo. "To be able to get to see another part of the world, for me to able to play a high level of hockey, it was pretty much a no-brainer when we got the call."
Playing in the second-best league in the world also had clear appeal.
"For me, that's the reason I picked it," he said. "I love the competition. It provides the top level you can get outside of the NHL. I get to play against guys like [Alexander] Radulov and [Ilya] Kovalchuk. I think it's a great league. The travel is a little hard, but other than that, every other thing so far has been positive for me."