Friday, 19 October 2018

A Hero On Multiple Levels

He's the only NHL player to ever hail from the northern Manitoba town of Churchill, and it's just one of the reasons why Jordin Tootoo should be celebrated. The first Inuk to ever lace up the skates in the NHL made the announcement today in Brandon, where he played junior hockey for the WHL's Wheat Kings, that he was retiring from the NHL at the age of 35 after 13 seasons and 723 games in the highest pro circuit. To say he beat the odds in finding his way onto an NHL roster would be an understatement, but for Jordin to make the NHL when the town of Churchill has but one hockey rink is remarkable. He should be hailed as hero and an icon for the Indigenous community, and he's doing incredible work in trying to help Indigenous youth regarding mental health initiatives. Jordin Tootoo will be missed on the ice, but the work he's doing off it will perhaps have a much greater impact.

"When I came to Brandon in 1999, I didn’t think of myself as an Indigenous role model, I was just a hockey player that would fight with everything I had to make the NHL," Tootoo stated in his retirement announcement. "This community embraced me and looked beyond my background and just judged me for how I played the game. And it’s pretty special and symbolic to come full circle and be back here to announce that I have retired from the NHL."

For those that may not know, Tootoo's father, Barney, is of Inuk descent while his mother, Rose, is Ukrainian. He grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut where he was a good athlete, following in his older brother's footsteps as Terence was another talented hockey player. Terence and Jordin both suited up in the MJHL for the Opaskawayak Cree Nation's team known as the OCN Blizzard where they caught the eye of WHL scouts for their scoring and tenacity on the ice.

Things went well for Jordin as he was drafted in the 1998 WHL Bantam Draft by the Brandon Wheat Kings. In 2001, the Nashville Predators made Jordin the first Inuk to be drafted by an NHL team when they took him 98th overall. It seemed the sky was the limit for young Jordin as his dreams would one day be realized.

Things also seemed to be going extremely well for the other Tootoo brother as Terence had just completed his first season in the ECHL with the Roanoke Express where he was named the Express' Rookie of the Year. He returned to Brandon to visit Jordin at the conclusion of the 2001-02 ECHL season, and began working towards cracking the roster of the AHL's Norfolk Admirals in the fall.

The summer of 2002 was a turning point for the Tootoo family. As Jordin wrote in a 2014 article on Sportsnet, he experienced the loss of his brother via suicide after Terence was caught by Brandon police for driving while intoxicated. This led Jordin into a bought of depression which he soothed his woes with alcohol and women. At first, it wasn't apparent, but it gradually got worse to the point where he was pulling all-night drinking binges in Nashville and embarrassing the club with his actions off the ice.

Despite being a fan favorite in Nashville for his rugged and tenacious play, GM David Poile gave him an ultimatum in 2010: go into rehab or get cut from the team. December 27, 2010 saw Tootoo enter into the NHL's and NHLPA's joint substance abuse program where he'd spend a month of time trying to kick his addiction. Tootoo wrote in his 2014 book, All the Way: My Life on Ice,
By the time I walked into The Canyon, I'd been sober for a detox. But I still had to go through a process where they monitor you for a week. I had arrived in the middle of the night, when everyone was sleeping. I got up the next day, walked into a room, and saw all of these F'd-up people sitting around. We were sitting in a circle and I was looking around and thinking, 'Am I really like this? Do I look like these people?'
After completing rehab, Tootoo returned to the Predators and played some inspired hockey. He was signed by the Detroit Red Wings in the summer of 2012 on a three-year, $5.7 million contract, but things in Detroit just didn't work out as both sides had hoped. Detroit bought him out, and this allowed Tootoo to sign with the New Jersey Devils in 2014. In 2016-17, Tootoo would sign in Chicago with the Blackhawks where his career would end with 65 goals, 96 assists, and 1010 penalty minutes in his 723 NHL contests.

Forget the stats. Forget the cities. Jordin Tootoo has been down to the depths of hell and up to the highest points of life in his 35 years, and now he starts a new chapter.

"It's been a great run and now it's time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life," he said, adding he plans to "continue to work to enhance life for Native children who are suffering."

That work started in 2011 when he established the Team Tootoo Fund that helps "a wide range of charitable causes including nonprofits addressing suicide awareness and prevention, as well as those supporting youth at risk." His efforts in helping these causes prompted the New Jersey Devils to nominate Tootoo for the 2015 NHL Foundation Player Award which is given to a player who uses the core values of hockey — commitment, perseverance and teamwork — to enrich the lives of people in his community.

Needless to say, Jordin Tootoo can now focus his efforts entirely on helping Indigenous youth with mental health initiatives and suicide prevention - two issues which plague the Indigenous communities of the north. Being Inuk, Tootoo can serve as a role model and mentor for a lot of kids in northern Canada, and there's hope that his efforts to reach these kids will have a lasting impact on them. From the work being done already by Tootoo, thousands of Indigenous kids have been inspired to follow Jordin's lead.

I'll miss Tootoo on the ice, but it's pretty clear that he's just as effective - if not more effective - in his role off the ice. Tootoo being an NHL player allowed him to reach thousands, and that's entirely how one's celebrity status should work. Tootoo may not be remembered as an icon on the ice very often, but he's already a hero to thousands of people.

Count me as one of them because I have the utmost respect for the work he's doing in northern Canada. All the best in your retirement, Jordin, and I hope a vast number of those Indigenous kids you've reached go on to follow in your footsteps to help the next generation of Indigenous youth!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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