Rankin Inlet’s Jordin Tootoo is making a big splash with the NHL’s Nashville Predators these days. He had the distinction of becoming the first Inuk to play in the NHL when he suited up for his first National Hockey League game last October 9 against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

Tootoo is considered small by NHL standards (5’9″, 190 pounds) but he plays with the reckless abandon of a football player. His reputation around the league is that of a punishing hitter who will sacrifice his body for the success of his team. His rugged play helped Tootoo become a part of the Canadian World Junior Hockey team earlier this year that Won a silver medal at the World Championships in Halifax.

Despite his young age (20), Tootoo has had his share of adversity in his personal life. Along with having the pressure of becoming the first Inuk player in the NHL, Tootoo’s brother, Terence, 22 at the time, took his own life August 28, 2002. This was very difficult on him, but he knew he had to perservere. Dealing with this type of tragedy has only made Tootoo stronger, and more dedicated to becoming a successful player in honour of his brother.

The rising number of Aboriginal players in the league is encouraging to Tootoo. According to Nativehockey.com, there are at least 14 players in the NHL right now that are of Aboriginal heritage. These numbers include players who are full-status, non-status, Inuit, or Metis. His being a part of that list is something he hopes will bring more Natives into the league, especially those with an Inuit background.

“I think it’s great, if it encourages other natives to work towards that (getting into the NHL) then great,” Tootoo says in an interview. “It just takes hard work and mental strength.”

The hardest thing Tootoo is still trying to get used to the mental aspect of the game. “That’s the toughest part, getting used to dealing with the media, and dealing with all the distractions that come with being in the NHL.”

Tootoo was already used to the different culture down south, having played for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL for four years. Racism was one of the things he definitely had to deal with in junior, but he says that he hasn’t encountered those types of incidents in the NHL yet.

Thus far into his career, Tootoo has not signed any large endorsement contracts, though this will almost surely change in the coming years.

Tootoo has a few nicknames, one of which he earned in Brandon while playing for the Wheat Kings: Dr. Tootoo. He earned this name because of the number of opponents he sent to the hospital from the ice.

He admits he isn’t really looking too far into the future concerning his NHL career. “I’m just going to play every game as it comes,” he says. “I don’t know what the future holds, so all I can do is play for the present.”

Tootoo says he hasn’t been in Nashville long enough to have any close friends on the team, but the team as a whole already feel like his family. “They’re a great bunch of guys, and I felt comfortable right from the start.”

Most of his teammates are fascinated by his background, and can’t believe that some of his favorite foods include whale blubber and walrus. These meats are something they’ve never seen, let alone eaten, in their lives.

It’s been said that when young people from the north (Cree or Inuit) move down south to pursue a different life, they lose their culture, and their connection to the land. Tootoo disagrees.

“I don’t believe that,” he says. “I’m still who I am. Just because I’m in Nashville doesn’t mean I’ve lost the way I lived before (as a Native person). I still hunt and fish, and I enjoy it as much as I did when I lived there (in Rankin Inlet).”

Getting back to his family home is something Tootoo tries to do as often as he can. This can sometimes be difficult because of the amount of training that goes into playing hockey for a living, and the lack of facilities up north.

Tootoo sometimes gets around this by using his own training regiment. Hauling water jugs, climbing a 100-foot hill, and using various other methods to keep in shape are part of that regimen. When he does get back he says it almost feels like he’s never left.

He firmly believes that anyone who puts their mind to accomplishing their goals, even if it doesn’t necessarily involve hockey, can do it. ‘You just have to work as hard as you can, and try to stay focused on what you want to accomplish.”