To this day it’s still the biggest hit I’ve ever seen. I must have been 12 or 13 at the time. He was at a tournament in Hay River, in 1996 or so, playing for a Fort Providence all-star team.
It was the first time I’d seen Jordin Tootoo, though his name was already known in households, schoolyards and arena dressing rooms across the North. Whenever Yellowknife hosted a tournament, the first question was always, “Is Tootoo coming?” When friends played territorial tourneys in his hometown, Rankin Inlet, I’d ask them, “What did he do?”
The stories were mythical. He’d knocked down the biggest player in our league—the dad-sized guy who doled out the punishment locally—and Tootoo was only half his size. One year, a politician’s son moved to town from Rankin—still part of the NWT—and played on our team. We’d ask him all sorts of questions: “Does he really have a key to the local rink?” (Sort of; his dad managed the rink, so he came and went as he pleased.) “Does his slapshot really dent goalie masks?” (Probably.)
We were playing hockey outside with a smashed-up pop can because we’d long been eliminated from the tournament. In the finals, Fort Providence was matched up against the hometown squad, Hay River. Because I wanted to see him myself, I’d run inside the old Hay River arena every few minutes to get an update on the game. I’d tell my friends what the kid from Rankin Inlet was doing. “He just scored,” I’d yell. “He just scored again.”
It was sometime during the second period, or maybe early in the third: Hay River’s best player took the puck from Tootoo in the corner. It might have been a body check, or maybe a trip, but he definitely took the puck off Tootoo. The crowd—seemed like the entire town of Hay River—cheered desperately at the small victory. Their team, outmatched mightily, was down 7 to 3.
But the play wasn’t over. The kid from Rankin Inlet jumped up. Angry—in a way that made you nervous for his opponent. The Hay River player strode up the ice; miraculously, Tootoo’d nearly caught him before he reached the blue line. Sensing his pursuer out of the corner of his eye, the Hay River kid cut inside. Wrong move.
The two hit and sticks and gloves went flying in slow motion, some landing in the crowd. Silence. And then a whistle blew. Tootoo stood defiant. With the puck.
The Hay River player was laid out on the ice, with what we’d later learn was a broken arm. I was at the glass, mesmerized, before racing outside to breathlessly recap an already legendary hit, feeling like I’d just witnessed history. The Hay River coach pulled his team off the ice. The game was called. 7 to 3, Team Tootoo.
Undersized at every level, Jordin Tootoo quite literally fought his way into professional hockey. In college, some friends and I went to see him at the Calgary Saddledome, back when he led the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings in scoring—he dropped the gloves that night, bringing the crowd to its feet. The next year, he was in Halifax, playing for Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championships. We watched on TV, as the crowd chanted, “Tootoo! Tootoo!” for the kid from Rankin Inlet. He was the most exciting player of the tournament with the way he launched himself into anyone, anytime, changing the tone of the game with one big hit. Nunavut flags flew in the Halifax Metro Centre.
From there, it was obvious Tootoo would make the NHL. And he did, becoming the first Inuk to do so when he suited up for the Nashville Predators in 2003. Today he’s a winger for the New Jersey Devils. He’s got skill, a heavy shot and speed, but mostly he’s known as a vicious hitter, a gritty pest, an undersized enforcer, not afraid to trade punches with guys nearly a foot taller than him.
But I never realized how much Tootoo had to fight off the ice as well. In his recently-published memoir, All the Way: My Life on Ice, he talks unsparingly about his childhood, his fights with his parents, his use of women to stave off loneliness and the struggles to come to terms with the suicide of his older brother—and idol—Terence. The constant companion and the root cause: alcohol.
Tootoo’s been sober for four years—Nashville intervened at the right time—but he’s returned to the North every summer since he left, getting the king’s welcome, talking to youth and adults about the perils of alcohol. It’s only lately he hasn’t felt like a hypocrite for it. “Up in the North, you just keep that stuff inside,” he says.
I thought about that and how I look at that hit in Hay River now. It was all right there. The anger. The fight. The promise, fulfilled.