Editorials

Chicago Blackhawks’ Jordin Tootoo: Up Close And Personal

By Gail Kauchak
Mar 6, 2016; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils right wing Jordin Tootoo (22) fights with Pittsburgh Penguins Tom Sestito during the first period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 6, 2016; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils right wing Jordin Tootoo (22) fights with Pittsburgh Penguins Tom Sestito during the first period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /
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The newest member of the Chicago Blackhawks has a pretty incredible backstory

If you took a closer look at almost every hockey player in the NHL, you would probably hear a fascinating story of physical and mental strength and resilience. But some stories are even more captivating than others. Such is the case with one of the newest members of the Chicago Blackhawks, Jordin Tootoo.

After playing for the last two seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Tootoo recently signed a one-year deal with the ’Hawks. Naturally, I was curious as to what this 33-year-old, 12-year veteran could possibly bring to the table. Everything I read tells me he is, at best, a shabby substitute for Andrew Shaw. Yes, he’s a known agitator; but he certainly doesn’t have the skillset or the ability to get in front of the net that Shaw has.

Regardless, Shaw is gone and Tootoo is here, so I set out to find out some more about this man.  Jordin published a book in 2014 called, “All The Way, My Life On Ice”, where he talks candidly about the road he’s traveled both before and after he made it big. You see, he’s the first-ever native Inuk Indian to play for the NHL. His life experience is very different from the life most of us know.

Above is a video of a fight in 2014 between Jordin and now-Blackhawk Andrew Desjardins. Who knows, perhaps the two will become linemates!

Jordin grew up in a small village just outside of the Arctic Circle called Rankin Inlet, in Nunavut. He played hockey mostly for something to do on a frozen lake and in a small indoor rink in town. While most elite hockey players are groomed to hockey from the time they learn to walk, Jordin didn’t play real organized hockey until he was in his teens.

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He talks about playing outside in 40 degrees below zero temperatures like it was nothing. He woke up at 6 in the morning to shovel snow for all the government buildings in town. He went out on the land in frigid conditions to hunt and fish with his father. His life was very physically demanding, but this is all that he and his people know.

Jordin ran around with his older brother, Terence, and his brother’s friends who were all three years older than him. Naturally, he had to be tough in order to keep up. “If you knocked me down, I got up,” he says. “I had to get back up because I wanted to be with them, to be with these older guys that I idolized. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be the player I am today or the person I am today”.

In his book, he makes no secret of the fact that he was brought up in an abusive and dysfunctional alcoholic family. He has great respect for his father, and speaks very highly of his mother. But he also tells of how everything went downhill after the alcohol started flowing. Jordin and his brother and sister did everything they could to stay out of the house on the weekends.

This difficult lifestyle translated into a rough and tumble style of hockey that was second nature for Tootoo. He was always that guy that would fight anyone, but he also had speed and scoring ability. He played for four years with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. In his final year, he notched 35 goals and 39 assists in only 51 games. He was the star of the team!

Jordin had to survive great personal hardships right before the start of his NHL career

But Jordin was living a double life. Yes, he was the long shot who was making it big in the hockey world. But behind the scenes, he was using his newfound fame to his advantage. He was partying and binge drinking whenever he could. It was noticed by his teammates and coaches, but all was forgiven as long as he scored a few goals, or got in a big fight.

In 2001, Jordin was drafted by the Nashville Predators. He attended their training camp, and was working hard with the Wheat Kings in preparation for his second training camp with the club in September of 2002.

But this is where Jordin’s story takes a turn for the worse. Right before camp, he was out partying with his brother, Terence. While Jordin decided to stay at his girlfriend’s house, Terence wanted to drive home. He was stopped by the police and given a DUI. In his drunken haze, he felt like this was the end of the line, and he lost all hope. He shot and killed himself later that night.

Terence left Jordin a suicide note.  “Jor, go all the way. Take care of the family. You are the man.” Instead of giving up, Jordin used his brother’s words as inspiration. This is what motivated him to carry on, and to become successful in the NHL.

But Jordin’s drinking eventually caught up with him. He admits that if he was hungover for a game, he would get in a fight right away, so the fans and his teammates would be happy and he wouldn’t have to work as hard. In December 2010, he went on a 48-hour drinking binge and publicly embarrassed the team.

Nashville’s general manager, David Poile, had finally had enough. He called Jordin into his office, and gave him an ultimatum. He needed to go into rehab, or else he would be cut by the team. But by this time, Jordin was ready. He was tired of the downward spiral his life had become. He successfully completed rehab, and has been sober ever since.

Does Tootoo have anything left in the tank for the Chicago Blackhawks?

Now I know what you’re thinking. This is a great story, but how the heck does it translate into Tootoo working out with the Chicago Blackhawks?! I hear you, and that is why I found the end of Jordin’s book to be so intriguing.

Jordin became an unrestricted free agent in 2012, and he had the opportunity to test the open market. He ended up signing with the Detroit Red Wings. He liked the fact they were an Original Six team, and that they were a serious contender for the Stanley Cup (two aspects the ’Hawks have as well).

Things didn’t exactly go as planned in Detroit. He didn’t play a lot of minutes, and was often a healthy scratch in the 2012-13 season. He then spent most of the following season playing for the team’s AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. He simply never found his niche with the big club.

Jordin was very frustrated with having to play in the AHL. He talks openly about how Detroit seemed to automatically lean toward their youth. “But what happened to the part about having to earn your spot?” he asks. “Nowadays, everything is just kind of handed to the kids”. Well, Jordin, you might find that’s not exactly the case with Coach Joel Quenneville!   

Jordin says he will use this bad experience to help him be stronger and build character to fight through adversity. “The truth is, I’ve been fighting all my life, one way or another,” he says. “Unless someone believes in you, you’ve got no chance. I’m just waiting for that one opportunity where someone believes in me and knows that I can play.”

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Who knows if Tootoo will find his way or be a bust with the Chicago Blackhawks this year. But either way, I’m glad I read his book and got to know him better as a person, on and off the ice. He is a man who has fought incredible odds to make a name for himself, and to be a role model to his people. He is a fighter. Does he have any more “fight” left?

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