Jordin Tootoo has always taken pride in his roots. Every off-season, the 5-foot-9 underdog from Rankin Inlet, who racked up 161 points and 1,010 penalty minutes in 723 NHL games over 13 seasons, would return home to fish and hunt with friends and family.
Tootoo, the first Inuk player in the NHL, remains a hero to youth in remote communities across Nunavut. Hockey fans from Nashville to Igloolik admired his blend of toughness, speed and skill, and his reputation for sticking up for his teammates at all costs.
So when he retired last fall and made plans to take part in the Terence Tootoo Memorial Cup hockey tournament, which was renamed in honour of his late brother in 2017, the homecoming carried more weight than usual.
Terence, who was three years older than Jordin and the first Tootoo to blaze a trail to pro hockey, took his own life in 2002.
“Every time I get the chance to come back it’s a special feeling, but this time around it’s extra special,” Jordin said.
A WELCOME, A GOODBYE
The tournament, which wrapped up on Sunday, was a hero’s return for Tootoo, but it was also the last senior men’s tournament to be played in Rankin’s beloved Singiituk Complex. The community will start using a new, state-of-the-art arena next fall.
Since it opened in 1986, Singiituk Complex has held enough no-holds-barred games to make Don Cherry blush. As Tootoo prepared to lace up his skates in his childhood rink one last time, the chance to add another chapter to the lore of the arena was not lost on one of Cherry’s favourite grinders.
“I talk to a lot of my buddies in the dressing room before the games. I tell them, ‘There ain’t nothing like playing in this barn,’ ” Tootoo said. “The fans are always in it. It’s just like playing in another NHL arena.”
When Tootoo stepped onto the ice for the first time last week, the 503-person capacity arena was packed. But it wasn’t until his second game of the tournament – when Tootoo’s team, the Miners, faced off against the local junior C team, the Kivalliq Canucks – that things really started to heat up.
The Miners’ lineup was stacked with men from across Nunavut who left home with plans of following Tootoo’s path. Some had played professionally in far-off scrappy leagues such as the Southern Professional Hockey League in the United States, and almost everyone on the team had played in at least a high level of minor hockey or junior hockey elsewhere in Canada.
Portraits from Nunavut’s hockey community: Photographer Cody Punter captures the faces of the Nunavummiat who have been congregating at Singiituk Complex arena in Rankin Inlet
More important for the Kivalliq region’s discerning hockey fans, who value family above all else: There were few players from the region on the Miners.
The Canucks, meanwhile, were a bunch of kids in their late teens and early 20s that were picked from Rankin and its surrounding communities to represent the region in tournaments across Canada.
There was no shortage of people cheering on Tootoo, but from the moment the puck dropped it was clear the fans were rooting for the hometown underdogs. The Canucks kept the Miners on their heels for most of the game. The score remained 0-0 until midway through the third, when David Clark – Rankin Inlet’s tireless recreation co-ordinator and bantam hockey coach – bowled over his long-time friend and Canucks’ goalie Connor Faulkner while driving to the net.
A scrum ensued, gloves were dropped and penalties were handed out. On the next draw, the Canucks’ top forward, Wendel Kaludjak, went after Tootoo, who had accidentally clipped Kaludjak in the groin with his stick. On the ensuing Miners power play, Tootoo scored what would end up being the only goal of the game.
THE YOUTH WATCH THEIR HERO
As the buzzer sounded, it was obvious the tight battle on the ice had electrified the crowd and set the tone for the rest of the tournament. Tootoo showed a childlike smile on his face when interviewed in the cramped blue hallway of the rundown rink, as he declared the return of “old time hockey” to Rankin Inlet.
“In these tournaments, everyone takes a lot pride in where they come from,” Tootoo said after his team lost 2-1 to Arviat in its final round-robin game. “There’s a lot of talented kids in the Kivalliq, and to have the opportunity to play against them – they want to prove something, and that’s great for the game and for our youth.”
For all his fights against NHL heavyweights, Tootoo’s struggles off the ice were his toughest. After drinking heavily to cope with his brother’s death, Tootoo is now eight years sober. As he begins a family of his own, he is now using his celebrity status in Nunavut to raise awareness about alcohol abuse and suicide prevention among Indigenous youth.
“I don't think it was really until I sobered up and had more clarity that I realized these kids, they just need hope,” he said.
Tootoo’s return to Rankin was his way of giving back and spreading his message. But as the tournament grew increasingly intense, it was clear his competitive fire was still burning – just the way his brother would have liked it.
“At the end of the day, I think Terence is smiling down and saying, ‘May the best team win,’ ” he said.
The Miners and the Canucks won their respective semi-finals on Sunday afternoon, setting up a late-night rematch of the scrappy game that had breathed life into the tournament. Pressed against the glass, two long-time hockey buddies, each with a son on one of the teams, tried to make predictions for the final.
“The Miners are big and they’re strong. They’re going to be tough to beat,” said Darren Nichol, whose son was playing for the Canucks. “But the kids got nothing to lose.”
As expected, the kids came out fighting, but they were no match for the veteran Miners. The final score was 6-2 in Team Tootoo’s favour.
Long after the game was over, Tootoo and his best friend Troy Aksalnik were the only two Miners players left in the dressing room. Dozens of local children looked on in awe, watching intently, observing their hero basking in the glory of a trophy that meant little to the outside world, but everything to a hockey player whose brother was taken from him before his time.
The kids were eager to follow in Tootoo’s footsteps – to make a name for themselves in the NHL as he had – and one day, their time might come. But that night in Rankin Inlet, the hockey gods were seemingly smiling on Jordin and his family.