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Jordin Tootoo of the Nashville Predators celebrates his goal during game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre November 16, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/Getty Images)
Jordin Tootoo of the Nashville Predators celebrates his goal during game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre November 16, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/Getty Images)

GARY MASON

Jordin Tootoo doing all the right things Add to ...

Often the last person to see his life going down the drain is the person himself, Theo Fleury once said. Maybe that's why it took Jordin Tootoo so long to seek help for substance-abuse issues his mother says he'd been battling for eight years.

At least since his brother Terence walked into a field with a 12-gauge shotgun in August of 2002 and ended his life.

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No one is quite sure why Tootoo voluntarily admitted himself into the NHL's substance-abuse program last December. His mother, Rose, gave him Fleury's autobiography, Playing With Fire for Christmas. Maybe the book's graphic, sometimes chilling account of how booze and drugs nearly killed the former NHL star was enough to scare Tootoo into doing something to address his problem. Maybe it was a conversation with someone close to him.

Regardless, it took all the courage and determination Tootoo has so often demonstrated on the ice during his seven-year career with the Nashville Predators to leave the game he loved and seek help.

But his teammates are sure glad he did.

"He's a new person," Nashville defenceman Shea Weber said about his teammate since his return in mid-February.

Heading into his team's Round 2 series opener against the Vancouver Canucks, Tootoo was playing some of the best hockey of his life. He racked up five points (one goal, four assists) against Anaheim in the Predators' historic first-round win over the Ducks. Coach Barry Trotz said he feels confident putting Tootoo and linemates Jerred Smithson and Nick Spaling out in any situation.

But none of the three were very visible in their team's 1-0 loss to Vancouver on Thursday. Then again no one on the Predators (other than their goalie) looked particularly inspired in the opener, including Tootoo, who can often be counted on to steamroll an opposing player to get his team fired up.

In the first period, he did little besides taking a senseless penalty in the neutral zone. Tootoo plays a fierce, smash-mouth game but he still takes too many dumb penalties.

Tootoo didn't have an impact on the game to any noticeable degree in the second and third periods, either. He played 10 minutes 37 seconds and finished with no points.

"I don't know what happened," Tootoo said after the game. "I have to be better next game and the whole team has to look themselves in the mirror."

Seven-plus years after scoring his first goal against Atlanta's Pasi Nurminen, Tootoo's NHL journey remains an inspiring one.

In his small hometown of Rankin Inlet, 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, the 5-foot-9 198-pound Tootoo's name has become synonymous with hope. He is the first Inuk to make it to the NHL and it's not necessary to spell out how slim the odds are of anyone making The Show from Canada's frozen tundra. Yes, it's easy to find ice there but not the high-level competition needed to develop the kind of game that gets a player to the NHL.

Tootoo's teammates and coaches aren't the only ones who have noticed a difference in his play since returning from rehab. He has, too. Mentally, he says, things are "clearer." The game seems slower, even if he seems a little faster because he's in the best shape he's been since arriving in the NHL.

"He's doing the right things," Trotz says about Tootoo's play since returning. "He's going to hard places and good things happen when you do that."

Jordin Tootoo had to go to some hard, dark places within himself to deal with the demons that have plagued him. As it turns out, good things happen when you do that, too.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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