Tootoo Will Be First Inuit in the NHL
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Magazines, newspapers and the Internet have carried Jordin Tootoo’s name from his home 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle throughout North America and the world.
Now the hard-hitting hockey player from the frozen North has secured a spot with the Nashville Predators and will be the first Inuit to play in the NHL when they open their season on Thursday.
The 20-year-old right wing made the team after a successful training camp with the Predators, the team that drafted him in 2001. That was also an Inuit first.
He is expected to play on the fourth line of a sixth-year expansion team desperate for help at the box office. But Nashville coach Barry Trotz insists he loves how Tootoo plays, not his potential for bringing in fans.
``The one area of his game that everyone overlooks is he really has good hockey sense, being able to play the game. He plays old-time hockey. That’s what he does. He’s a loud, grinding-type player,″ Trotz said.
Trotz said Tootoo reminds him of the Detroit Red Wings’ Kirk Maltby, the 6-foot, 190-pound winger with 87 goals and 559 penalty minutes in seven seasons.
``When he’s effective, everybody’s yapping at him, and everybody’s yelling at him,″ Trotz said. ``He’s going to be a real effective player.″
Trotz has been most impressed with how Tootoo has handled the publicity that comes with his celebrity. Tootoo said he handles the pressure by just seeing himself as the first of many.
``I’m just trying to pave the way for the young kids out there trying to set goals,″ he said. ``And hopefully one day kids can say, `If he can do it, I can do it.‴
The biggest knock on Tootoo is that he is too small at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, to survive the nightly pounding in the NHL. That’s why he showed up a month early for conditioning work with Predators strength coach Mark Nemish.
But he’s already dealt with the physical style he learned growing up in Rankin Inlet, a town of 2,300 in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, about 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg.
Back home, Tootoo was limited to running and lifting his 3-year-old niece Jayda and 6-year-old nephew Darrian to work his legs because of the lack of athletic equipment. Coming to Nashville in August, with temperatures near 100 degrees, wasn’t easy.
``Coming from where he came from, he adapted fairly well,″ Nemish said. ``He could’ve tanked with the humidity that he’s not used to, and he certainly did a good job of handling that.″
Tootoo arrived in poor condition. He spent up to three hours a day, six days a week working with Nemish and quickly built up his strength.
``You don’t see that too much, but he’s been blessed with some pretty good genes,″ Nemish said.
Away from the rink, Tootoo avoided becoming homesick by calling and using the Internet to keep in daily contact with his parents, Barney and Rose. He also found his way to many of Nashville’s sushi restaurants for a reminder of home where raw fish is everyday food.
``Sushi is sushi,″ Tootoo said.
His father coached him at a covered hockey rink in town, and that’s where Tootoo developed his physical style. Because towns in Nunavut are isolated, all the young people in one town had to play against each other _ regardless of age.
``By growing up playing with older guys, I’ve always had to fight my way through above my size,″ Tootoo said.
Tootoo has risen quickly. The past four seasons he was voted as the most popular player on the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League.
Tootoo fired a puck 96.1 mph to win the hardest shot portion of a prospects evaluation before the 2001 draft. The Predators made him the 68th overall pick.
He and his older brother, Terence, became so popular that they had their own Web site, where they sold caribou jerky, T-shirts and jogging pants.
But last August, Tootoo’s brother shot himself to death one day after being charged with driving while impaired.
Tootoo responded by turning in his best season yet, tying for first on the Wheat Kings in points with 35 goals and 39 assists. He also racked up a team-high 216 penalty minutes.
Now he’s surprising the Predators with his offensive skills and showing more speed than last year when he lasted only a few days in training camp.
``I’m just taking it one day at a time and trying to use every day to its fullest advantage,″ he said. ``I’m not trying to get too high or too low, just stay on an even keel.
``I have a big heart, and I play with fire beneath my legs. That’s what’s getting me going.″