Ask any hockey fan in Labrador to name their favourite NHL players, and it'd be no surprise to find Jordin Tootoo on that list.
Ever since the early 2000's, when #22 was making a name for himself as a tough-yet-skilled junior player, it's been hard not to get hooked by his incredible story.
Tootoo made headlines as the first Inuk to play in the NHL. Hailing from the remote community of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Tootoo's journey to the big leagues was an unlikely one.
It was also a journey that had more than its fair share of hardships, including a battle with alcohol addiction, and dealing with the tragic loss of his older brother, Terence, to suicide.
Now Tootoo is bringing his incredible story to communities in Labrador, hoping it will help youth who might be struggling in their own journey.
“We all know that mental health is a huge epidemic in a lot of our remote communities,” said Tootoo in an interview with The Labradorian. “Up in Nunavut, where I'm from, suicide is a big factor for a lot of our youth.
“I've experienced that, our family's experienced that; and for me, if I can help one or two kids get out of that rut by telling my story, it'll be a successful trip.
“We want to have conversations about what the youth are going through and for them not to be afraid to speak up.”
Between Jan. 22-26 Tootoo visited Natuashish, Sheshatshiu, Nain, Makkovik, and Happy Valley-Goose Bay during his speaking tour.
Tootoo is well known for his NHL success. Between 2004-17, he played in more than 700 regular season games, amassing 161 points and 1010 penalty minutes. But Tootoo recently celebrated a milestone off the ice — eight years of sobriety.
“Although I was playing in the NHL, I used alcohol to numb my pain and try to forget about all my personal issues that are going on,” said Tootoo. “At the same time, I think it was the best gift that was ever given to me, to sober up and to help me mentally prepare for life after hockey.
“The hardest part for me was to admit that I had a problem. As a man, you never want to show weakness but sometimes you need to lend your hand out and there's always going to be people out there willing to help you.”
Tootoo has talked openly in the past about how the suicide of his older brother, Terence, in 2002 affected him deeply. Tootoo said the pain of losing Terence was a heavy factor that led to alcohol abuse.
Terence, himself, was a talented hockey player and, like Jordin, was living away from Ranklin Inlet to play hockey at a higher level.
In his memoir All the Way: My Life on Ice Tootoo describes Terence as “a caring guy who looked after other people before he looked after himself. I remember that as a kid, as hard as he was on me, he was always there to protect me. In the community, everybody admired him for being the way he was.”
“When you lose a loved one, it's emotionally draining,” Tootoo told The Labradorian. “And, mentally, sometimes you don't know where to go or what to do. For me, it was to grab a bottle and drink 'til I blacked out so I could forget about everything that's gone on.”
“But, at the same time, it was ruining my career. So, I either had to fix myself or go down the path that many others choose to go through and, ultimately, I would have taken my life.”
Tootoo credits his eight years of sobriety on willpower and having a strong support system of family and friends.
“The hardest part is admitting you have a problem, but it doesn't get any easier when you sober up. The first couple of years are the toughest in finding out who you are, and who your true friends are,” said Tootoo.
The longtime NHLer said he received a lot of support from teammates and colleagues once he returned to play with the Nashville Predators following rehab in 2011.
“I'm grateful that the hockey world has a lot of respect for individuals that are struggling. There's a brotherhood in the dressing room right across the league,” he said.
‘That’s my Stanley Cup’
Reflecting now on eight years of sobriety, Tootoo is most grateful for the people he has in his life today, especially his wife, Jennifer, and daughters Siena and Avery.
“For me, this has given me a beautiful wife and two healthy baby girls. Ultimately, that's my Stanley Cup,” he said. “My kids and my family keep me on the right path.”
Jennifer Totoo first met her future husband in 2003 at a AAA hockey tournament in Brandon, Manitoba. She was selling merchandise at a booth that just so happened to be right next to where Jordin was signing autographs that day.
“I didn't actually know who he was, even though I was working at a hockey tournament,” said Jennifer with a laugh. “I didn't actually come from a big hockey family.
“So he walked in and I thought he was pretty cute.”
In 2011, Jennifer and Jordin reconnected right after Jordin got out of rehab.
“I had heard that Jordin went to rehab in the news,” recalled Jennifer. “I messaged him, knowing that he probably didn't have his phone in rehab... and then he messaged me when he got out.”
By happy coincidence, it just so happened that, not long after their phone message, Tootoo's Nashville Predators were travelling to Jennifer's home city of Vancouver to play the Canucks. Tootoo suggested that the two go out for dinner.
“The rest is history, because we've actually been together ever since,” said Jennifer.
On top of being a full-time mother of two daughters under age three, Jennifer also serves as a primary point of contact for those who are looking to interview Tootoo or book him for speaking engagements.
Jennifer believes that being a family man has helped keep her husband busy and grounded during his sobriety, especially now that Totoo is retired from professional hockey.
“Jordin is such a wonderful dad and a wonderful husband,” said Jennifer. “He just wants to be a loving father and give his kids as much love and attention as he can give them. He's proud of us; he's proud of his family, and he's proud of what we have.”