As the NHL season enters the homestretch, the Nashville Predators hold a familiar place in the Western Conference standings, destined to again make the NHL playoffs and take a run at the club’s first Stanley Cup Championship.
A major contributor to the Predators’ success this season is Jordin Tootoo. The 29-year-old from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Tootoo is the first Inuk to play in the National Hockey League. Currently in his eighth season with Nashville, Tootoo has travelled a difficult road to the NHL, which started on the natural ice rinks in his hometown and then led him to leave home to play Bantam hockey in Alberta at the tender age of 14.
A year later, Tootoo joined the OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League; a club that many Eeyou Istchee hockey fans will be familiar with, and which currently has three young Eeyou Istchee players on its roster. However, while Tootoo, who was born on Feb. 2 and wears number 22, was enjoying success on the ice at a young age, the culture shock of living away from home meant that the youngster sometimes had to fight both off and on the ice.
“As a kid growing up in an isolated community, you get used to what you have pretty damn quick,” said Tootoo, in a recent interview with the Nation prior to a game against the Ottawa Senators. “For us growing up, we had the opportunity to be at the rink every day. Fortunately I got scouted when I was 14 and made the transition from living in Nunavut to living down south. That was a tough situation for me, but I stuck it out with the support of my families, friend and, of course, my teammates.”
It was not only Tootoo’s willingness and ability to intimidate opponents and drop the gloves when required, but also the way he played the game with such a high level of energy that led Nashville scout Rick Knickle, a former NHL goaltender, to lobby hard on Tootoo’s behalf with Predators’ general manager David Poile. In June 2001, Poile made a deal for the Philadelphia Flyers’ 4th round draft pick which he used to select Tootoo, who had by this time graduated to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League.
Being drafted by the Predators seemed to light a fuse under Tootoo. In the two seasons after being selected by the Predators, Tootoo’s offensive numbers rose significantly, leading to his selection as a member of Team Canada at the 2003 World Junior Hockey Championships, where he won a silver medal playing alongside such future NHL stars as Marc-André Fleury, Joffey Lupul and Derek Roy.
Within a year, Tootoo became a regular with the Predators and a fan favourite in Nashville for his hardnosed style of play. But getting to the NHL was one thing, staying there was altogether different.
Following the lockout that wiped out the 2004/2005 NHL season, Tootoo had a difficult time sticking with the big club. Nagging injuries, limited offensive output, and changes in the game that had come about as a result of new rules implemented after the lockout meant that Tootoo had to once again prove that he belonged in the NHL.
Lingering hip injuries kept him off the ice for significant stretches in 2007 and 2008, and groin and foot injuries sidelined him for 30 games in 2010. But the Predators kept their faith in Tootoo, signing him to a two-year contract that ensured he would remain a Predator until at least the end of the 2011-2012 season.
It looked like Tootoo’s time had finally arrived until suddenly, on December 28, 2010, the Predators announced that he had voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA’s Substance Abuse Program to receive treatment for an alcohol problem. Tootoo rejoined the Predators, clean and sober, in February 2011 with a rejuvenated spark to his game and offensive upside, including seven points in the final seven games of the regular season, and six points and 28 penalty minutes in the 12 games Nashville contested during the 2011 playoffs.
Early in February 2012, Tootoo and Nashville teammate Brian McGrattan agreed to go on camera on TSN and Hockey Night in Canada to speak frankly about the challenges they both have faced with alcohol. Tootoo’s battle with the bottle will always be part of his story; a footnote that fans and journalists will often discuss. However, Tootoo is now seeking to start new conversations that focus on team, family and community.
Approaching the 60-game mark of the 2011-2012 season, Tootoo is healthy and contributing on the ice like never before, reaching new personal highs in offensive production while also being voted by his fellow players as one of the hardest hitters in the NHL.
“I think as the years go on, the game has evolved and you have to change your tendencies,” explained Tootoo. “For me personally, I knew I had the knack to create offensive plays. Maybe in the past I was happy to play five to eight minutes a night, bringing energy and playing physical. But today, you gotta be able to play the game; you gotta be able to skate.”
Nashville coach Barry Trotz has watched Tootoo’s development since he was a teenager and has played a key role in helping Tootoo improve his game and deal with personal demons.
“How Jordin has changed off the ice in terms of getting his life in order has made him a better player. It took away the ceiling that was there because of what he was going through,” explained Trotz, the first and only coach in the history of the Predators’ franchise. “Now, he has got more patience with the puck, things have slowed down for him, he can make plays.
“Before he was just a pure energy guy, now he’s a good two-way player and has an edge to him.
He doesn’t have to fight every night but when you challenge him he will take you on, and pound for pound, he is as tough as they come.”
Trotz also views the addition of McGrattan to the Predators’ roster at the beginning of this season as a positive part of Tootoo’s recovery from alcohol and development as a player. In 2008, McGrattan, then a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, also entered the league’s Substance Abuse Program and has been sober ever since.
“We knew what Brian had gone through, and that it had been almost three years,” said Trotz. “We are a team built on second chances. We’re an expansion team. We are a big believer in that. You don’t get a third, but you get a second chance.
“Brian fit what we needed and I think that Brian has been a big, big rock for Toots,” continued Trotz. “Going through what he has gone through, it is a battle every day. You get through the first year, you sometimes tend to let your guard down and that is when you get into trouble. I think that (Tootoo and McGrattan) rely on each other. It has been good for both of them, and it’s been good for us too.”
Tootoo has also played an increasing role in the city of Nashville, both in the media and with community organizations that address issues of importance to him.
Tootoo currently has a regular segment on the local news on Nashville’s Channel 2, called “Tootoo on 2”. He also hosts a regular radio program that broadcasts live from local restaurants, where Tootoo introduces his teammates to local fans, and provides fans with an opportunity to meet and question their local heroes.
“It’s been great,” Tootoo said of his recent on-air activities. “It gives our fans a little insight into our day-to-day lives; lets them see that we are regular people who do regular things, and that we are fortunate to do what we love to do, which is play hockey.”
The focus of Tootoo’s community involvement is the “Team Tootoo Fund”, which he founded with the goal of engaging fans and the Nashville community, and supporting non-profit organizations addressing causes close to him.
“Team Tootoo raises awareness of suicide prevention and we want to help youth at risk,” said Tootoo. “This is my time to give back. I am grateful to have that opportunity.”
“Anytime you go through issues off the ice, one thing you have to avoid is being idle,” added Trotz. “One of things I talked to Jordin about, because I have gone through it in my own family, is that you’ve got to immerse yourself into something that is good for you. Jordin has a number of things he is involved with and I think it has been very good for him.”
For Tootoo, his community activities go beyond giving back or keeping busy. It is very personal for him. Tootoo’s older brother Terence, who played professional hockey in the ECHL, took his own life in 2002. While the tragedy has left Tootoo lonely, it has inspired him to help others deal with the types of challenges he has had to endure.
“Everyone understands that situation,” said Tootoo of the loss of his brother. “And that is why I want raise awareness.
“I see kids a lot from small communities who have that passion and drive to play the game. You don’t see that with a lot of kids from the big city,” said Tootoo. “That’s because they have the opportunity to do whatever they want. I wish kids could experience all sides of the world.”
While Nashville has warmly embraced Tootoo as a native son, he has not forgotten where he comes from, and what has been required for him to successfully travel his own path.
“It all stems from how much you want it personally. That is where it all begins,” stated Tootoo. “Other people can’t make you decide what you want to do. It has to come from your own heart. It is important to have people who you can lean on when times are tough. The Nashville Predators organization has been a tremendous part of my life and growth as a professional; and my parents and sister have been there for me through thick and thin. I wish I could thank them as much as I would like to.”
With more Tootoo-style hard work and a little luck, maybe that thanks will one day come in the form of a Stanley Cup party in the tiny community of Rankin Inlet.