The day Jordin Tootoo walked inside the Keystone Centre, he was focused on embarking on his Western Hockey League career, but the distinct smell was what grabbed his attention instead.
“That smell just knocked me right off my feet,” said Tootoo. “This is where the Brandon Wheat Kings play hockey and it smells like this? What the hell have I got myself into?”
Yet while Tootoo probably had a pretty good idea of the aromas wafting through his nasal passage that day, the linger smell of success was just beginning to take hold for the Rankin Inlet, Nunavut product.
Over the course of 220 WHL regular season games, 39 WHL playoff games, a memorable performance at the 2003 IIHF World Junior Championship, and a 723-game National Hockey League career, Tootoo found the meaning behind that smell and himself in the process. That’s what made Friday’s festivities at Westoba Place in Brandon, Man so special as he announced his retirement from the game that had given him so much over the past two decades.
“Being a dad, having two little girls which I’m grateful for, healthy babies, I just felt that my time has come and for me to move on to the next chapter of my life; this was the right time to do it.”
It was also fitting that the ceremonial face-off for Friday’s game featured a pair of Manitoban talents in Wheat Kings captain Stelio Mattheos and Everett Silvertips captain Connor Dewar, both drafted into the NHL and on the path to begin their respective careers much like Tootoo was all those years ago.
From the moment he stepped on the ice with the Wheat Kings, the Tootoo Train became well known throughout the league as Jordin was able to back up his scoring talents with physical strengths, playing on the edge, but never going too far over it.
“As soon as I laced them up and put that jersey on, I knew I was going to do everything in my right to fight to make the lineup and be a regular on a nightly basis,” said Tootoo. “I set my mind to it, Bob Lowes and McCrimmon gave me the opportunity. Kudos to them. I really owe a lot of my hockey career to them.”
A 48-point (20G-28A) season with the Wheat Kings in the 2000-01 season saw the Nashville Predators use their 98th selection on Tootoo at the 2001 NHL Draft and Tootoo only got better from there, recording back-to-back 30-goal and 70-point seasons in the 2001-02 and 2002-03 WHL Regular Seasons. Brandon and that familiar aroma became a source of positivity for him.
“This is where my journey to the NHL began,” noted Tootoo. “Without Kelly McCrimmon believing in me and knowing that there’s something special in me, this was no better place to announce [my retirement].
“I’ve embraced the city of Brandon playing here in front of the fans for four years have really touched my heart. This is where I met my wife and it’s really come full circle.”
But as quickly as Tootoo’s career was rising with the Wheat Kings and the Predators, the passing of his brother Terrence in August 2002 was a devastating moment, one Jordin described as a “defining moment” in his WHL career.
“Kelly McCrimmon was actually with me when the news broke and he actually caught me in his arms as I fainted,” noted Tootoo. “I knew from that point on that I’m always going to have a bond with Kelly that I’ll never forget. The city of Brandon embracing myself and my family and my brother Terrance who came to training camp here with me.
“I think that was the defining moment in my life where a lot of change happened and as soon as I stepped on the ice, and went out there, the fans were just behind me 100 per cent and you could just feel that energy.”
Tootoo carried that energy through the aforementioned 723 games in the NHL with the Predators, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, and Chicago Blackhawks. October 9, 2003 marked Tootoo’s debut, the first Inuk to play in the NHL and he’s vocalized his support ever since to support those in need of help for mental health and suicide prevention, especially in remote communities with predominantly First Nation populations.
There’s a final buzzer for each hockey game and an official end date on Tootoo’s professional hockey career, but the task of helping those in situations he’s found himself in is a life-long task that Tootoo is more than happy to embrace, even if it served as source of pain before.
“It’s going to take time; it’s a process,” continued Tootoo. “I’m very proud of where I come from. The Inuit population has been a tremendous support in my hockey career and to give back to a lot of these remote communities in Nunavut, the Arctic, that’s where I look forward to getting out to a lot of these communities and having conversations and help people heal from past experiences and move forward.”
Part of that call includes reaching out to corporate Canada as Tootoo put it, a process he’s hopeful will lead to further initiatives for inclusion.
As Tootoo leaves one team of hockey brothers, time to reflect is on his mind, but he’s already got another team lined up to spend more time with.
It includes his wife Jennifer, as well as children Sienna-Rose and Avery Grace.
That’s a team worth keeping together in the long term and building something special around.