It was Oct. 9, 2003 against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Tootoo, a 20-year-old Nashville Predators rookie forward at the time, thought he was going to have a great chance to score his first NHL goal.
"I was right in the slot, and as the puck was coming to me I was like, 'OK, this is my shot,'" Tootoo said. "And as I went to shoot the puck it fumbled over my stick. It must have hit a rut in the ice and I didn't get a piece of it."
Fanning on his first NHL shot attempt isn't the only thing Tootoo remembers from that night in Nashville 15 years ago.
"I think the biggest thing for me was when I jumped over the boards I could hear kind of a roar in the crowd," he said. "I probably had over 300 people from Nunavut there and the flags were flying and all that. So it was a pretty special moment."
Tootoo, now 35, said it took him a while to appreciate the significance of that moment -- a 5-foot-9 forward from Rankin Inlet, an Inuit hamlet in Nunavut, Canada with a population of fewer than 3,000, making it to the NHL -- and the impact he could have as a role model.
He went on to play 13 seasons in the NHL with the Predators, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Chicago Blackhawks, and had 161 points (65 goals, 96 assists) in 723 games.
"Still to this day, it was kind of an unbelievable experience and I'm hoping that I can pave the way for future indigenous, aboriginal kids coming up," he said.
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Tootoo understands the importance of sharing his story and how it fits into the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
As an Inuk growing up in Rankin Inlet, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Tootoo didn't know if playing in the NHL was a realistic dream until the 2000-01 season with Brandon in the Western Hockey League, when had 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists) in 60 games as a 17-year-old.
"The biggest thing for me is reaching out to a lot of these isolated communities where not a lot of kids have opportunities to leave home and pursue their dreams," said Tootoo, who was selected by Nashville in the fourth round (No. 98) of the 2001 NHL Draft. "I've been touring the north for the last 15 years visiting a lot of these communities and I see a lot of great talent. I try to educate these kids on getting out and seeing the world.
"Because home is always going to be home, and in order for you to achieve your goals in whatever profession you want to go into at some point you're going to have to leave home to pursue it."
There's more to Tootoo's story than hockey. He also openly talks about the suicide of his older brother, Terence, in 2002, mental health issues and his battle with alcoholism. He credits Predators general manager David Poile and former Predators coach Barry Trotz (now with the New York Islanders) with pushing him to get help and enter the NHL/NHL Players' Association Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program on Dec. 27, 2010.
"Sometimes you have to let your guard down and ask for help," Tootoo said. "Sometimes that's part of growing up. As a professional we all fight a fight no one knows about. When you're comfortable and content in your own skin you're not afraid to speak up, and I think that's what really exemplifies a true man, showing emotion, asking for help, communication."
Tootoo remains dedicated to sharing his story, but hasn't given up on playing yet. After sitting out last season -- he began it on long-term injured reserve with an upper-body injury and did not play after Chicago assigned him to Rockford of the American Hockey League on Nov. 30 -- he's hoping for a chance to play in Europe this season.
He's been skating with a WHL team in Kelowna, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their two daughters, while waiting. If no opportunity comes, he's grateful for the career he's had.
"I look back and I reflect on my hockey career and what it's given me opportunity-wise away from the game," Tootoo said. "Personally I didn't think it would go this far. But I'm grateful for everything that's put in front of me. It's been a tremendous ride."