Jordin Tootoo recounts how he went all the way

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tootoo-all-the-wayJordin Tootoo, the first and still only Inuk to play in the National Hockey League, is enjoying something of a rebirth this year with the New Jersey Devils. It’s another in a long series of second and third chances for the scrappy winger from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, who overcame very long odds when he first jumped on the ice for the Nashville Predators back in 2003.

It’s a story Tootoo chronicles in a remarkable book, All the Way; My Life on Ice, co-written by veteran sports reporter Stephen Brunt.

All the Way is not always an easy read. Alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence, isolation, racism and suicide are social ills familiar to many northern First Nations, and those realities are a central to Tootoo’s story. The hockey achievements are sometimes simply a side story in the book, a backdrop to the more important tale of overcoming huge social and personal handicaps to succeed.

And Tootoo pulls few punches in relating his personal journey. One that is drenched with the problem drinking that his parents continue to engage in to this day.

“For my parents, drinking starts out as a social thing,” he writes, “but then that social thing turns into fricking abuse and then into violence and that’s when it takes control over them. They drink only to get f***ing wasted.”

The difficulty of obtaining alcohol in Rankin Inlet is part of the context to the binge drinking in the local culture, he explains. “It’s hard to get alcohol in Rankin and it’s expensive. A lot of families are living paycheque to paycheque because of that; they set aside half of their paycheques to pay for their orders of booze.”

It’s one reason Tootoo would spend hours on the outdoor rink in temperatures as low as minus-50, avoiding the drunken abuse at home and expending his anger by bowling over opposing players, often beating them up. That rough-and-tumble style became his trademark as he worked his way up to the big time.

There were also helping hands, starting with opportunities to play in developmental leagues in Alberta while living with host families. That’s where, despite seeing that it’s possible to live in families free of boozing and violence, he first encountered a raw racism that wounds to the core.

“What I do remember is the racism. A lot of racism. I wasn’t used to that. I hadn’t had a lot of experience with it.” At 13, while dominating a tournament in Saskatoon, opposing players, coaches and parents in the stands began hurling abuse. “You wonder how they came up with it,” Tootoo recounts.

“How did the adults teach these kids that it was okay to degrade someone of a different race? I can’t recall many of the specific slurs now, but I remember being more surprised than hurt. A kid would yell something like, ‘Hey Eskimo, go back and live in your igloo where you belong!’ I remember thinking, What’s wrong with an igloo? What’s wrong with being Inuit?

3_B_World Jr. Pictures 006One thing is certain: Jordin Tootoo is very proud of his heritage and his land. Those themes are a constant throughout his book, right from the beginning.

“On the land is where you understand how simple life is,” he opens. “It’s so humbling and so peaceful. You go to Toronto or New York and everything is moving at a hundred miles an hour. You come up here and you put away your phone and nothing else matters. You are in the moment. You have to be.”

As he relates, his people still go out on the land for survival, and yet fight for survival out on the land. “Being out here is part of our culture and lifestyle in the North…. I think that’s how I learned to go into survival mode when I’m out on the ice. That comes from all the trouble I’ve seen out on the land growing up, because when things are going okay, something bad is going to happen eventually and you’ve always got to prepare for it. Out on the land, you never know.”

Those traits would see Tootoo take an accelerated route to the big leagues, often competing against players years older than he was. At 15, he was playing alongside his older brother Terence for the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey A League in The Pas. He would score almost a point a game while helping the Blizzard win their first league championship.

It’s also where Terence and Jordin were able to cement their close relationship away from the constant drama and abuse of their home life. The relationship would continue as Jordin moved south to Brandon, Manitoba, to star for the Wheat Kings in the WHL during a four-year run that saw him develop into a star, leading the team in scoring and penalty minutes. He would go on to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship, losing to Russia in a heart-breaking final game.

Though Brandon was where Jordin came into his own, it was also the scene of his biggest tragedy as their drinking lifestyle only accelerated.

Jordin Tootoo on the Nunavut ice with his father, Barney

Jordin Tootoo on the Nunavut ice with his father, Barney

During the summer of 2002, before Jordin’s final season with the Wheat Kings and after Terence had become the first Inuit professional hockey player with the Roanoke Express of the ECHL, the two brothers partied it up in the small prairie city. Then one night, Terence was stopped and changed with impaired driving. Later that night he would commit suicide.

He left a note. “Jor, go all the way,” it read. “Take care of the family. You are the man. Terence.”

“For many years I blamed myself for Terence’s death,” Jordin relates. But Tootoo knew he would never know the full story.

“There’s a lot of suicide in Rankin Inlet, and in other northern and First Nations communities. I understand the part about the lifestyle up there, and being isolated, and feeling that there’s nothing out there, so fuck it. It happens all the time. Part of Terence taking his own life had to do with feeling like he didn’t matter, like he was no big deal.

“You will never know what really leads to a suicide. You can speculate all you want. But I was with him until the bitter last hours before he took his life, and I never knew he was hurting inside because he never showed it.”

But Jordin took his brother’s final words to heart and drove himself to new heights despite continuing to drink to excess. In 2003, just over a year after Terence’s death, he would finally make it, carrying the pride of his people with him.

He recounts his debut with the Nashville Predators that fall: “I jumped over the boards for my first shift and the whole arena gave me a standing ovation. It was a pretty cool moment: the first Inuk player in an NHL game…”

He would go on to become a fan favourite in Nashville over the next eight seasons, not putting up the same offensive numbers as he had in junior, but excelling as a role player who could mix it up and throw opposing players off their stride.

“Fighting was always part of my game, and it’s one of the skills that got me to the NHL. The truth is, I’ve been fighting all of my life, one way or another. In hockey, I started fighting way back – when I was 12 or 13 years old,” Tootoo says of the physical part of the game.

tootoo-young“I know my role and it is being energetic and changing the pace of the game and dropping the gloves when that makes sense. With my style of play, I know fights are bound to happen.”

Eventually however, the drinking would get in the way. And in 2010, the Predators had had enough, packing him off to a posh rehab centre in California. Tootoo hasn’t touched a drink since.

That change gave him room for reflection. Parts of the book, perhaps intentionally verge on misogyny, as he recounts “slaying broads” night after night.

“I was with a lot of women in Nashville,” Tootoo allows. “Lots. Lots. And by ‘lots’ I mean… well, you know. I was a man-whore.”

His first full season sober would see Tootoo put up his best numbers in his career – 30 points in 2011-12 – before he would sign as a free agent with the Red Wings. But Tootoo would founder in Detroit, getting little ice time over two seasons and spending long periods in the minors. Now he’s back getting regular shifts on a struggling team in New Jersey. But one thing hasn’t changed: he still leads his team this year in penalty minutes.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is his pride in his heritage. It’s a gift that keeps on giving in arenas throughout his junior and professional careers.

“The best reaction came from other First Nations people. (Prince Albert fans) gave me a gift from the reserve; it was one of their traditional blankets with some special designs on it, plus some sweetgrass,” he recounts of one game.

“I’m very thankful to have a following like that among Aboriginal people. I’m an Inuk, but I identify strongly with all First Nations people. I think there are a lot of similarities no matter what part of the country we come from. We are very loyal to our traditions, our culture, and our people. We’re small town-oriented individuals who have a simple life and enjoy it, rather than having all of these materialistic things. We draw a lot from our roots.”

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