NEWARK, NJ – Five years sober.
Former Red Wing Jordin Tootoo hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since he ‘blacked-out’ after a booze-drenched day in Dec. 2010 when he attended a Tennessee Titans football game followed by a country music concert.
Now in his second season with the New Jersey Devils, Tootoo, who doesn’t hide from his past demons fueled by alcohol, is celebrating five years of being clear and sober.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for me personally,” Tootoo said. “I talk to a lot of people about the daily battle, but I embrace that battle, and when you have a great support system around you ultimately it’s about respecting, and I feel that right across the league and within the dressing room here. It’s been great. Lots of ups and downs, but that’s part of life.”
Five years ago, the first Inuit player in NHL history, was given a sobering ultimatum by the Nashville Predators, who drafted Tootoo in 2001.
Two days after Christmas, Tootoo entered a California in-patient care facility through the NHL's substance abuse and behavioral health program. He shared his experiences in a 2014 tell-all book, “All The Way: My Life on Ice” by Stephen Brunt.
Last month, Tootoo marked his five-year anniversary with an announcement on Twitter, writing ‘Today I'm grateful to be sober for 5 yrs !!!’
Now, Tootoo and his wife, Jennifer, are expecting their first child.
“Yeah, end of April,” he said. “A little bambino.”
Red Wings forward Drew Miller said he’s honored to call Tootoo a friend.
“I love Toots,” Miller said. “He’s definitely a character guy, works hard every day. You know what you’re gonna get from him.
“He’s gone through a lot in his life with dealing with (alcoholism) personally and with family or friends. So I think for him to reach that point, I mean, I’ve very proud of him and happy for him. I know it’s something that means a lot to him.”
The past five years has been quite a journey for Tootoo.
In 2011, he established the Team Tootoo Fund, a charitable endeavor that supports non-profit organizations addressing suicide awareness and prevention, as well as those helping at-risk youth.
It’s a responsibility that Tootoo takes seriously.
“People go through life with different experiences and it doesn’t matter where you come from or what professional you’re in, we all have a battle that no one knows about,” he said. “It’s about opening up and being honest, and just speaking out about it. Not a lot of people are able to talk about it. That’s one thing I really try to do, be open and honest about it. When you’re true to yourself you see the bright side of life.”
Once he completed rehab, Tootoo played one more season with the Predators before signing a three-year contract with the Red Wings in July 2012. But life threw another curveball at him when the Red Wings assigned him to their minor-league club in Grand Rapids.
It was with the Griffins that Jeff Blashill first met Tootoo, and grew to appreciate his commitment on and off the ice.
“It was tough situation. He didn’t want to be down there, but he handled himself great,” the Red Wings head coach said. “He helped our younger guys get better. He came to work every day. He helped me as a coach. He competed every night. He brings great energy. He can really hit. He can skate and is on the puck hard. He brings the competitive level of your team up and that’s what he’s done against us the two games he’s played against us. I’ve got lots of respect for Jordin and he’s done a really good job with Jersey.”
Though he has a team-worst minus-16 rating, Tootoo has earned increased ice time, even on special teams, with the Devils this season. He has three goals, two on the power play, and eight points in 38 games.
“You never ever are gonna as a player say you get too much ice time,” said Tootoo, who has a goal and two assists in two games wins over the Wings this season. “But I understand what my role is and whatever they need me to play I’m willing to do that. I’m just embracing it and enjoying it.”