You don't have to be unblemished to be a role model. To admit to an overwhelming problem, to put fame and fortune on hold, to reach out for help, all while living under a microscope, may make Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk player in the National Hockey League, a more powerful and apt role model than he would have been otherwise. Mr. Tootoo voluntarily admitted himself this week into the NHL's substance abuse program.
Mr. Tootoo, 27, raised in Rankin Inlet, 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle ("I tell all the kids that Santa Claus's first stop is my house"), used his talent and determination to overcome the many obstacles facing others in his community. He succeeded where his older brother Terence, also a hockey player, did not. Eight years ago, Terence ended his life at age 22, after being charged with impaired driving.
Everything about Mr. Tootoo's career bespeaks his determination. Rare among NHLers, he did not even play organized hockey till he was 14. His roaring, full-throttle style of play has led to him being dubbed the "Tootoo train" by fans of his team, the Nashville Predators. "He's unique, he's different," his mother Rose said yesterday by phone from Nunavut. "He was determined, and when he was a little boy he always said, 'I'm going to make it to the NHL, no matter what anybody thinks.'" Now he will need to use his determination on a foe wilier than Sidney Crosby and with longer arms than Zdeno Chara.
What made him go for help now? His mother didn't know, but said she gave him Theo Fleury's autobiography, Playing With Fire, for Christmas. Mr. Fleury's substance abuse nearly killed him during his NHL career, and he has gone on to become an eloquent advocate for child protection and support for the addicted. "It seems to me the last person who can see your life going down the tubes is yourself," the 42-year-old said on Tuesday.
The term "role model" has become a cliché in sports. But in his case, it fits. Young people in Nunavut really do view Jordin Tootoo as pushing back the boundaries of what they might achieve. He has always taken seen himself in this light. "It's something I take pride in. Hopefully, more kids can look up to me and say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'" A very human role model, Mr. Tootoo is playing in a game more important than hockey, and if he can succeed, others can, too.