Clean but still mean, Nunavut's favourite son enjoys a sobering season. By Eva Holland.
Barney Tootoo has four words to describe his son these days: "He's a changed man."
His son is, of course, Jordin Tootoo, 29, Nunavut's most famous export. In 2003, Tootoo landed a spot on the Nashville Predators' roster, becoming the first Inuk to play in the National Hockey League. Over the next seven pro seasons, he carved out a position as a fan favourite, a player known more for fighting than scoring. But, unbeknownst to his supporters both in the Far North and in Tennessee, he also spent those years drinking. "It was like a snowball effect," he told a reporter from Sports Illustrated. "I was being taken down by this demon, which was alcohol."
Tootoo made the headlines again in December 2010, when he entered the NHL's substance-abuse program. "It just got to the point where I was like, 'Enough's enough. I'm going to do this for me,'" he said after emerging from rehab. "It was probably the best decision I've made in my life." His coaches likely agreed: When he rejoined his team for the playoffs, he scored six points in 12 games, helping the Predators to their best-ever postseason results.
Now, with more than a year of recovery behind him, Tootoo has just had the best season of his pro career. ("He's been feeling really good," says his father.) He hit the 30-point mark during the regular season, nearly doubling his previous best of 18 points, and Nashville finished 4th in the Western Conference, securing home-ice advantage as they headed into the playoffs. (The Preds beat the heavyweight Detroit Red Wings in the first round before being defeated by the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round.) On top of his big season, Tootoo was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to a player who demonstrates "perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey."
The Masterton Trophy is one of hockey's highest honours. In past years, it's been given to players who've returned to the league after suffering personal tragedies, severe injuries, or illness - like when Mario Lemieux scored 160 points in the 1992-93 season after being treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Josh Cooper, the chair of the Nashville chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which nominated Tootoo for the prize, was proud to put his name forward. "He just has such a compelling story," he says. "He was a very worthy nomination."
Dirk Hoag, a prominent Predators blogger, has seen the Nashville hockey community embrace Tootoo's comeback. "He's been one of the two or three most popular guys on the team for years now," Hoag says. "I think that appreciation from the fan base has only grown over the last year and a half, with all that he's gone through." Alongside his recovery, Tootoo has been increasing his involvement in the community. He's been speaking publicly about addiction, and his Team Tootoo Fund raises money for a variety of causes - recently, he made a donation to The Jason Foundation, an organization dedicated to preventing youth suicide. The grant was a nod to Tootoo's older brother, Terence, who took his own life in 2002.
Tootoo didn't make the shortlist for the award, but Cooper thinks the Masterton is about more than the chance to get applause at an awards gala. "Every team has a great story, every team has somebody they believe is worthy," he says. "But it's not so much about winning, it's about getting these great stories out there so people can see them."
People in the North, at least, are certainly keeping an eye on Tootoo's story. Says Barney Tootoo: "We're rooting for him right now."