DETROIT – Brimming with admiration for the rich tradition of his new team, Jordin Tootoo stood near his locker stall Monday morning soaking in the historic images of former Red Wings’ greats depicted in the large mahogany-framed black and white photos that hang high on the dressing room walls.
It was a “pinch-me” moment for the 29-year-old Inuk, who first played organized hockey at age 14 when he left his parents’ home in the Canadian Arctic.
“This is an Original Six team and there’s nothing but history – not only in this locker room and building – but throughout this whole city,” said Tootoo, following the team’s informal skate at Joe Louis Arena. “I’m just ecstatic to be a part of something new and this is a new chapter of my life.”
While Tootoo is knowledgeable about the Wings’ past glory, he learned Monday that he is the latest player of aboriginal descent to don the winged wheel sweater.
“Obviously, it’s a great thing for our people to let them know that it doesn’t matter what race you are. If you put your mind to it, anything is possible,” said Tootoo of hearing that Wings’ alumni Ted Nolan, Reggie Leach, Dale McCourt, Henry Boucha and John Chabot are descendants of indigenous peoples.
However, growing up in the Inuit culture of northern Canada is uniquely different from life in other aboriginal communities. The weather conditions north of Hudson Bay are extremely harsh and living off the land is essential. Hunting and fishing isn’t so much for sport as it is for survival, Tootoo said.
“The average temperature is minus-40 Celsius, so the lifestyle is definitely a lot different,” he added. “Words can’t put it into perspective. I think the only way to recognize it is to go up there and see it yourself. I could talk as much as I want about our traditions and our cultures, but you have to see it yourself.”
Each spring Tootoo returns to Rankin Inlet on the northwestern coast of Hudson Bay to fish, hunt, relax, and to enjoy an Inuit diet of raw caribou, seal, Arctic char and beluga whale.
“Our traditions and our culture are totally different than any other aboriginal or First Nations culture, so that’s probably the one thing that I miss the most,” said Tootoo, referring to the delicacies back home. “I’d try to get it across the border but it’s pretty tough these days to get it in.”
But crossing the pro hockey barrier as the first Inuk player, and the first player from Nunavut to play in the NHL, carries a greater responsibility, and is something Tootoo hasn’t taken lightly since making his debut in 2003.
“To be recognized as the first Inuk I just believe that I’m the first of many more,” he said. “I’m just paving the way for a lot of these young kids because they are the ones who are the future.”
The Wings hope they won’t have to wait as long for Tootoo to make an impact in Detroit. After all, the 5-foot-9 spitfire is coming off the best single-season of his eight-season NHL career, having produced six goals and 24 assists for the Wings’ Central Division rivals in Nashville.
For the last few seasons, the Wings have sought the services of a Tootoo-like player, someone who goes about the game with a gritty disposition, doesn’t shy from the physical contact and can be an agitator as a bottom-six forward.
“We've been looking for that element for a while,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “He's a guy that likes to finish checks and makes the other team keep their heads up. I think that rubs off on people. I think whatever line he plays on will make his linemates more agitating.
“There is a new opportunity here for him. We see him as a guy that can play on the third or fourth lines. We think he can chip in some goals, finish checks. He will provide energy. He plays hard and plays fast. He was a popular player when he went on the ice in Nashville because of the way he played. Hopefully he can bring some of those things to our team.”
One thing Tootoo won’t bring to his new club is his past demons fueled by alcohol. In 2010, he voluntarily entered an in-patient care program through the NHL's substance abuse and behavioral health program.
“We go through a lot of ups and downs in our lives, and as First Nations people we’re more prone to drug and alcohol issues, and obviously people know about my story and that’s one defeat that I had to overcome,” Tootoo said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, we all have issues. You just have to find the right components to get through it and go from there.
“As any northern kid, you get accustom to the lifestyle and it’s hard to change. But great support and the community have been my No. 1 fans and I’m excited to start a new chapter.”
And that next phase began Monday.
“To see these photos of hall-of-famers and be told that they’re around quite a bit just sends chills down my spine,” Tootoo said. “These guys are it, and words can’t describe what they really mean, and now that I’m a Red Wing I’m so honored to be in the same dressing room.”
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