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From Nunavut to Nashville

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EDMONTON, Alberta - From the adoration of the hundreds of spectators decked out in their colorful, oversized jerseys, it might be expected they've come to see one of the premier stars in professional hockey.

Never mind that who they're honoring has had his ice time drop significantly and who hasn't made a huge impact on the scoresheet. No, these fans are paying homage to one of their own, a local, whose stardom is rising in one of the sport's southern American outposts yet whose journey has its roots in an even more isolated Canadian village.

Hailing from the town of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Jordin Tootoo, 21, is grinding his way through a rookie season in the National Hockey League, plying his trade for the Nashville Predators. If the home of country music seems an unlikely locale for big-time hockey, Tootoo's presence as the first player in the NHL of Inuit descent (and from Nunavut itself, a newly-created territory in 1999) is an even greater accomplishment.

With a population of 2,300 Tootoo's hometown, located on the western shore of Hudson Bay is 700 miles north of Winnipeg, accessible only by air. That his town is so small, his birthplace in the league's media guides is listed as Churchill, Manitoba, 300 miles to the south because there are no hospitals in Rankin Inlet.

The lack of competitive variety in Nunavut required Tootoo to leave the north at 14 for exposure to better team play in the hockey heartland of Edmonton. Such a move is necessary for boys in small-town Canada but rarely from as geographically removed as Rankin Inlet.

"If you're committed to what you do, you have to leave when you're ready," Tootoo said about the decision to relocate to the "big city" and launch his hockey career.

While other pucksters have laid claim to their First Nations or M?tis status and who have hailed from rural areas, including past stars as Reggie Leach (1970s Philadelphia Flyers) and Bryan Trottier (1980s New York Islanders), none have captured the hearts of all Canadians as quickly as Tootoo. With his gutsy and physical presence at the 2003 World Junior Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Tootoo's bone-crushing style of play, which was coupled with a goal-scorer's touch, became the talk nationwide as Canada captured the silver medal.

What makes Tootoo more appreciable and accessible for every player who's laced up the skates is his size. Only 5'9" and 193 pounds, this right winger (a forward position) resembles a spark plug - small, but full of charge.

"For me I'd go out and do my job because I'm an energy guy and trying to create some emotion," described Tootoo about his approach to the game. "Growing up I'd always play with older guys and I'd have to stick up for myself."

His high intensity, in part, has changed the attitude of the once-quiet Predators. Notwithstanding his dimensions, Tootoo has made his mark by adding a physical presence to the club. Prior to this season, Nashville consistently ranked in the bottom third of the NHL in penalty minutes with a usual game plan of trying to win without intimidation in the hopes of not ruffling too many feathers. Now this year the Predators haven't backed down from anybody averaging 16.8 penalty minutes per contest.

By almost doubling the number of fighting majors in just over half the season, 45, as it had all of last year, 23, Tootoo has tallied team highs of nine tussles and 85 penalty minutes. Helping justify the moniker "Smashville" in Nashville, coach Barry Trotz continues to notice the attributes in Tootoo that prompted the Predators to draft him 98th overall in 2000 from the Brandon (Manitoba) Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League (WHL).

"He'll get a big hit and he's intense on the puck. He's a throwback player," Trotz said, the only coach Nashville has had during its six-year existence.

Yet even well before his national stage with Canada's junior team and the Wheat Kings, where he was annually voted the most popular player during his four-year stint, Tootoo always had the crowds following him. After just one year of Bantam hockey in Edmonton, he moved to Tier-1 Junior hockey where he suited up for the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Blizzard in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) at age 15, bypassing entirely the Midget "AAA" level.

Foregoing all of the theories that a new club can't or shouldn't win, with Tootoo and his brother Terence, this team frequently sold out its arena with 2,000 fans and had a large contingent of fans at the away games. The team even had the unusual dilemma of putting its own interests ahead of a player's development.

"On his (16th) birthday he could have played for Brandon but OCN didn't want to send him there because the team had a chance to win the championship," said Luc Paquet, Tootoo's uncle from Winnipeg, who operates the Web site The Blizzard eventually won its first league trophy in its third year and then released Tootoo to the Wheat Kings.

Six years later Tootoo's popularity has grown exponentially and where his fans in Manitoba would drive several hours across the province, now fans travel thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of their adopted hockey hero. During the Predators visit to the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 23, this stop in the NHL's northernmost city represented the most likely venue where Arctic fans could see their native son in person.

One thousand tickets were allocated to local First Nations reserves and that included a contingent of about 150 family, friends and well-wishers who flew in from Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit (Nunavut's capital 1,700 miles east of Edmonton) and Yellowknife. A rabid hockey town with loyal Oilers support, the frequency of golden yellow Predators "55 Tootoo" sweaters or Canadian Maple Leaf "22s" (Tootoo's number at the World Juniors) gave Nashville an unusual amount of support as a visiting team.

Knowing the Alberta capital would be a homecoming of sorts, attributable to the half-dozen Inukshuk banners (Nunavut's territorial flags) throughout the arena, Tootoo tried to greet as many of his fans as possible.

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"This is the closest city to where I come from in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. There are tons of people who support me and I know that I have supporters from all over the place," Tootoo said regarding how he was continuously followed before and after the game.

Among those who journeyed south from Rankin Inlet was hockey coach Shawn Maley. Stating how hockey enrollment among the youth has jumped 30 percent to 240 kids this season, Tootoo represents hope for Inuit children to achieve their dreams should they want to leave the north.

"Jordin sort of epitomizes to the kids what they can achieve and he has excited the kids to play hockey," Maley said, and added that teams in the village will usually fly to two or three tournaments annually for outside competition.

When Tootoo cracked the squad during the pre-season and averaged 12 minutes of playing time during the first month with three points in his first six contests, there was early talk of Rookie-of-the-Year accolades. The grind of an 82-game schedule kicked in though and during a 10-week stretch he was held pointless through 35 games.

With his ice time falling to just nine minutes, the lowest of any Predator regular skaters, consequently his scoring chances have also dropped. Relegated to the fourth of four lines, his status also excludes opportunities on the more lucrative man advantage, or powerplay situations.

In Edmonton, his playing time was limited to five shifts of about 45 seconds each. Except for one reasonable bodycheck and some defensive zone coverage, his appearances during the first two periods were hardly noticeable. While Trotz wanted to give Tootoo more exposure, the game didn't allow for the winger to see more ice.

Besides the numerous powerplay and shorthanded situations, once Nashville vanquished the security of a 4-0 lead early in the third period, the coach couldn't gamble on sending out a rookie forward to protect the lead in the final 17 minutes in which the Predators fended off the Oilers for an eventual 4-3 victory.

Tootoo recognizes the step from being a star in the junior ranks to becoming a regular player in the NHL is a significant one. While his statistics in Nashville have dropped considerably from his final year in the WHL, Tootoo reflected upon an earlier stage in his career when he was going through a transitional period.

"My first year in the WHL it was pretty much the same (few points). As a player you mature and try to establish yourself," Tootoo said about his rookie campaign in Brandon when he only netted 16 points. "I'm using every day and the practices to get better."

To make the adjustments, Tootoo finds himself as one of the last players to exit the rink during Nashville's practice times. Often working one-on-one with assistant coaches on scoring and passing drills, his infectious smile is replaced with a determined focus as he rapidly, with purpose, fires pucks into an open net.

His efforts aren't going unnoticed. Even with the reduced ice time, coach Trotz acknowledges Tootoo's work ethic and believes there will be additional minutes sooner than later.

"(He'll) just have to wait his turn and pay his dues," said Trotz. "Right now I've got a couple of guys who I'm not happy with and hopefully he can take advantage."

For a club that's set modest expectations for itself and promised to qualify for the post-season for the first time last year, the Predators require every victory they can muster. After its win in Edmonton, Nashville was seven games over .500 but sits precariously in seventh place (top-8 of 15 clubs make the playoffs) in the competitive Western conference.

That the Predators find themselves in the middle of the pack still hasn't generated the appropriate attention. The game versus the Oilers represented a rare appearance for Nashville on Canadian television and for a roster void of any recognizable all-stars, Tootoo becomes the face of Predators, especially north of the border.

A live, post-game interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) represented a chance for viewers to catch up with Tootoo who may have fallen off hockey's radar screen. Only the most-savvy fans could claim to cite much knowledge about the league's Tennessee franchise.

Besides reminiscing about his performance at the World Juniors, Tootoo shared some casual insight about his Inuit background, including showing his left hand that still sports a scar, not from his fisticuffs, but from a harpooning accident. That he prefers muktuk (whale meat) to a Club sandwich; he said with a smirk that he hangs out at sushi bars because they're the closest substitute for raw fish he can get.

"Being in Nashville it's kind of hard to get it (seal) across the border," Tootoo said referring to how his parents don't send care packages of food to the United States.

He also stated his professional dream is to bring the Stanley Cup to Rankin Inlet. This per an NHL tradition that allows players on the winning team to take possession of the coveted and revered trophy and bring it anywhere, usually the hometown, for three days, Tootoo said he'd like to have his photo taken with Lord Stanley beside a famous inukshuk in his Nunavut village.

With the pride of becoming the first Inuit into the NHL, Tootoo knows there will be more Native northerners to follow and as others have done for him, he hopes to provide whatever assistance he can to those who are improving.

"There are a lot of talented players out there. I've had troubles myself but I had mom and dad to support me and if there are any players who I can support, I'll do that 110 percent."