When Jordin Tootoo arrives in Halifax tonight to try to win a spot on the Canadian junior team, along with his luggage, equipment and hockey sticks, he will carry the enormous weight of coping with the suicide of his older brother, Terence, in late August.
It's never easy dealing with the death of a family member, but Mr. Tootoo has persevered for the first-place Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and taken the words his brother left in a suicide note to heart.
"Jor. Go all the way. Take care of the family. You're the man, Ter," the note read.
Mr. Tootoo, the first Inuk to be drafted by a National Hockey League team, in the fourth round by the Nashville Predators in 2001, has shown this season that he has what it takes to go all the way. The 19-year-old will begin the Canadian junior selection camp as the WHL's leading scorer, with 24 goals and 52 points in 29 games.
He would like nothing more than to honour his brother and his close-knit family by making it in the NHL. But first, a spot on the Canadian roster is on his mind.
"Hockey is going to be my career and I'm determined to do everything I can to make sure it happens for me," Mr. Tootoo said yesterday from Brandon.
Jordin Tootoo was 13 when he left Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to play Triple-A bantam hockey in Spruce Grove, Alta. But he has never been far from home in spirit.
Each month, his mother, Rose, sends him a care package of caribou meat, whale skin and seal to fortify the teenager's appetite to become an NHLer.
"Everybody has special foods and this is what I love to eat," Mr. Tootoo said. "This is what I ate growing up, and I want to carry on my grassroots."
It would have been understandable if Mr. Tootoo had taken a break from hockey to recover from his brother's death. But the game was his solace when he was a homesick 13-year-old in Spruce Grove, and it has been again since his brother died.
The day after the funeral, Mr. Tootoo was back on the ice, participating in a Wheat Kings' training camp intrasquad game.
"I love being at the rink," said Mr. Tootoo, who played alongside Terence in 1998-99 for the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. "This is what I want my career to be, so I felt the best place for me was not to sit around, but get right back at it.
"When you are part of a team, there is nothing like spending time and having the support of your teammates. But I also have had a lot of support around Brandon."
That support has extended beyond Canada to as far south as Roanoke, Va.
The Roanoke Express of the East Coast Hockey League, where Terence played last season, retired his No. 22 in a pregame ceremony on Oct. 18, with the brothers' parents in attendance. Each Express jersey bears a No. 22 patch this season and Terence's picture hangs in the dressing room with the words, "Gone, but not forgotten."
Because of his brother's suicide, Mr. Tootoo and his considerable hockey skills are the focus of even more attention these days. Every road trip means another round of interviews.
Last weekend, two national newspapers interviewed him, as well as two television crews. The U.S. sports network, ESPN, is preparing a feature on Mr. Tootoo. And he expects nothing less when he reports to the Canadian selection camp.
The world junior tournament begins in the Nova Scotia capital on Dec. 26.
"I have been talking to a lot of people, getting advice on what to expect," Mr. Tootoo said. "I think the best approach is to have one day [in Halifax]and get the questions out of the way.
"I'm going there to make the team and I don't want the outside stuff to interfere with my goal."
Making a team was on Terence's mind as well. But, on Aug. 28, a few weeks before he was due for a tryout with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League, he was pulled over by Brandon police and charged with impaired driving.
He was later released and the next day, his body was found in the bush five kilometres north of Brandon, a 12-gauge shotgun by his side. Terence was 22.
The tragic incident devastated Mr. Tootoo and his family, but no trace of it has shown in his on-ice performance.
Mr. Tootoo is the driving force behind the Wheat Kings. At 5 foot 9 and 188 pounds, he is not only the best skater in the WHL, but he also has the hardest shot and is easily the hardest hitter.
"His effort is non-stop," Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "His recklessness and physical play is unbelievable. He plays the game with so much passion, and that's what makes him stand out."
It also makes him the most popular player with the Brandon fans.
Mr. Tootoo's play this season, combined with his attitude and perseverance, have made him a favourite to crack the 22-player Canadian junior roster.
"I saw him play twice recently and I was impressed," an NHL scout said. "He'll be an NHL player. This is a unique player, both on and off the ice. He'll be a fan-favourite wherever he plays.
"He's got some talent and he's high energy, a human pinball out there, banging and crashing."
Mr. Tootoo's robust play has led to 115 minutes in penalties so far this season, but that shouldn't harm his chances at earning a roster spot.
"I'm going there [Halifax]with the attitude of doing whatever I have to make the team," said Mr. Tootoo.
"I'm going there to establish myself on Day One and never let up. It's a real honour to be one of the 34 players selected to the camp, but I want to be one of the final 22 who make the team."