Jordin Tootoo, a forward for the Nashville Predators who became the NHL's first Inuit player when he made his debut with the team in October 2003, is in the best shape of his life. The 28-year old has long been known throughout the NHL as fearless—he will fight anyone, despite being relatively small at 5'9" and 197 pounds (and he's an absolute body checking monster)—but the Tootoo of the 2011 NHL playoff is an all together different player. He's putting up points, he's helping end games, and he's become one of the team's, and the league's, unsung heroes not just on the ice but off it. Tootoo voluntarily checked himself into the substance abuse and behavioral health program governed by the NHL Players' Association this past December 27 in an effort to change his life. It's an added bonus he managed to change his game, too.
As Jim Jamieson of the Montreal Gazettewrote, Tootoo grew up in the small Rankin Inlet, an Inuit hamlet in Nunavut, Canada. His skill was such that he left home at the tender age of 14 to play hockey. In 2002, Tootoo's older brother Terrance, a fellow hockey player, was charged by the police with impaired driving. A day later, Terrance shot himself to death. Jamieson reports that Tootoo's mother, Rose, told CBC News in December that she believes this was when Tootoo turned to alcohol. "It's been eight long years…not being able to talk about it and dealing with it," Rose Tootoo told the CBC. "It definitely took a toll on him, I think."
When Tootoo was reinstated into the NHL on Feb 18, his mother told CBC News, "I'm hoping and praying that he will stay on track." She was proud of her son's courage to deal with his issues, and hopes his decision to face his problems head on will send the message to other northerners who are dealing with substance abuse problems that it's okay to seek help. "Everybody makes mistakes. So if you think you have a problem, don't be afraid, like I say. Go out and get help."
Tootoo has been known in the league as an agitator. He has always been extremely tough, and for the first part of his career he played as if content with this role as an enforcer. These types of guys are crucial for a team to have, the men who make life miserable for the other team, but since Tootoo's reinstatement he's added new dimensions to his game.
In the first round of the playoffs against the Anaheim Ducks, Tootoo put up five points (one goal and four assists) and helped lead the Predators to the franchise's first playoff series win. Two of his four assists were on game winning goals. Tootoo still has crushing body checks in his arsenal, but he is quickly working himself into a more well rounded threat. Thanks in part to his offensive production, the Predators find themselves playing against the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference semifinals. The Toronto Sun put it well in an article by Randy Sportak; "Beware the Tootoo Train...Tootoo can still get under guys' skin, but [he] has become a different player since his stint in the league's substance abuse and behavioral health program."
"He's a new person," Predators captain Shea Weber told the USA Today's Josh Cooper. "This is a whole new level for him. This is some of the best hockey I've ever seen him play."
Tootoo told the USA Today that since he checked into the substance abuse program, straightened out his life, and came back, the game has slowed down while he's sped up. "You see the ice, you read plays differently when you're in tip-top shape, and mentally everything is clear," he told the paper, "the game seems to slow down just a little bit. I feel that way."
His two assists on game-winning goals came in the last two games as the Predators advanced into the second round. With the score tied 2-2 in Game 6 against the Anaheim Ducks, Tootoo skated wide around the Ducks' Luca Sbisa and fired a rocket at goaltender Ray Emery, who couldn't handle the shot and coughed up a rebound to the Predators' Nick Spaling, who put it in for the game winning goal. Tootoo's goal in the video above in an April 17 game against the Ducks was itself a manifestation of his entire game—he was relentless in his attack, his first shot was stymied but he kept fighting, and ultimately he netted his goal.
“You hit bumps in the road a little bit and you deal with them," Tootoo told the Montreal Gazette, "and where I am today I feel good and I’m excited to be part of the team and in a run for the Cup."