Jordin Tootoo was the first Nashville Predator I became a true fan of as a kid, but as I’ve grown up, I realize more and more how much I look up to him not for the fighter he was on the ice, but the man he is off the ice.
When I was younger, there wasn’t a player I enjoyed watching more than Tootoo.
It wasn’t flashy skill or his ability to handle the puck. It also wasn’t things a more traditional hockey fan would latch onto, that would draw me in to fandom of the Predators’ current record holder for penalty minutes, but his personality on the ice.
See, Tootoo was an enforcer in the truest sense. When he jumped onto the ice, whether the steam whistle blew, or the crowd energy began to rise, you knew he was there for a reason, and that important reason was to send a message to the opposing team.
Almost always, the message was received by way of a hard hit or fist to the face.
In the early years of Nashville Predators hockey, Tootoo helped define the culture that became known as “Smashville”. What the team sometimes lacked in skill, it made up for in grit, and when the team needed a spark, Tootoo was the flint that helped light the fire.
Younger me, not as well-versed in understanding the game, understood what it meant when a player smashed someone into the boards, or threw the gloves down. The crowd in Bridgestone Arena understood this too, and it ignited us all.
One thing you could almost always count on was Tootoo’s toughness translating to fan energy, and that energy could give way to a much-needed big play, even if Tootoo didn’t have a direct role in it.
Try not to get chills when watching Tootoo’s retirement video that was posted by his Canadian junior team the Brandon Wheat Kings:
What Tootoo brought to the team may have been indirect, but in those early years, it was affective just the same. It set the expectation for Predators hockey, that though we may be a “non-traditional” market, we would have a brand all our own, and we would take pride in it.
That pride would be fought for on our behalf, more often than not, by Tootoo.
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The thing is, eventually the final horn blares, and the arena empties out until the next game. When all is said and done, you have to come to grips with who you are off the ice, as much as who you are on it.
You see, Tootoo was a trailblazer in a lot of ways, and with trailblazing comes a story, and a bit of pressure along with it.
Tootoo is the first player of Inuit descent, the first Inuk player hailing from the Nunavut territory, to play an NHL game.
Coming from an indigenous community, he carried the pride of the Inuit community with him – whether he intended to be or not, he was and is a leader of that community; being a leader is a role he has fully embraced, sharing so in his retirement announcement tweet in 2018.
Tootoo’s life prior to and during hockey was anything but easy, especially when it came to facing inner demons that plagued his family. As so brilliantly highlighted in Chris Kuc’s article for the Chicago Tribune, Tootoo and his family were a part of a greater problem that affects many, especially within the Inuit community and Indigenous peoples, but across all demographics: alcohol abuse.
Prior to his NHL debut in 2003, he lost his brother, Terence, to suicide after he was arrested for drunk driving in August, 2002. Tootoo already had problems with alcohol addiction as young as 16-years-old, and these only accelerated after the loss of his brother.
Tootoo recalls how it affected his career in Nashville too, regularly being called out for his party boy habits by General Manager David Poile and then-Head Coach, Barry Trotz. It could be said it may have affected his game on the ice too; for as much as he was a part of building the culture of Smashville, he was sent back to the Predators AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, to work on his game in the 05-06 season.
For all of Tootoo’s challenges, he was fortunate to have access, and admirable to enter into, the NHL/NHLPA’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.
While in the program, Tootoo was able to not only work through his personal tragedies and challenges faced, but to gain sobriety.
Now, as referenced above, when he speaks on overcoming his challenges, many years sober, he does so leaning on perspective. He is more than a hockey player.
He’s a husband. A father. A son. A brother. A community leader.
Takeaways from his incredible career
What can be taken away form Tootoo’s life and career are different depending on your perspective.
To the casual NHL fan, he is an inspirational former player who overcame adversity while trailblazing a new path for Inuit people with aspirations to play professional hockey.
To the Predators faithful, he is all that and then some – a defining piece to the creation of the culture we have come to know and love as Smashville. To me, he is a hero.
The lessons I take away from him are many, but I find myself in awe of his courage not only on the ice, as the enforcer, the team’s go-to tough guy, but for the toughness he has shown off the ice.
You see, the final horn doesn’t just blare for hockey players. We all leave our jobs, we go home, we look ourselves in the mirror, and we have to be okay with who looks back at us. Not all of us are.
What Tootoo showed me and many others, inadvertently or not, is that we can change the person who looks back at us, for the better. We can seek help, lean on others, renew and redefine purpose, pursue joy, and put life into greater perspective.
At a time where mental health affects many, whether you’re a hockey player, hockey fan, or removed from the sport entirely, the challenges faced due to mental health are many. Mental health affects everyone, and while some statistics draw correlations between some afflictions to some people, anyone and everyone can face difficulties due to mental health, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The greatest lesson from Tootoo’s journey is this: it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling. Vulnerability is not a weakness, but the first step in reclaiming our power.
Resilience can be hard to come by, and even harder when you are at your lowest point, but like Tootoo when the steam whistle blows, and the opposing team needs to receive a message, it is a fight worth fighting – YOU are worth fighting for.
Times are tough, and mental health struggles have only increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but know there are those who support you and are there to help. If you or a loved one needs resources, here are a few:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
- They also have a way to chat online here.
- American Addiction Centers Helpline: 1-855-831-2384
- Additional helpful resources can be found at their website here.
- Alcoholics Anonymous website can be found here.
- National Alliance on Mental Health Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or click here.
I know the challenges we face, the challenges due to mental health, are real. I have struggled with them myself. But I also know they can be overcome.
One of my childhood heroes, now an adulthood hero of mine, has shown and continues to show, that the challenges we face can be overcome. May we all continue our fight, on or off the ice, for a better tomorrow, and support those around us who need it most: it’s the Smashville way.
Spread love, and know that you are not alone.