June 6, 2003

Number 22 is number one with Nunavummiut

Jordin Tootoo becomes first Inuk signed to NHL team

KIRSTEN MURPHY

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Jordin Tootoo with a bobblehead replica of himself. On May 29, he became the first Inuk to sign a contract with an NHL team. (PHOTO BY KIRSTEN MURPHY)

Nunavut's hockey hero, Jordin Tootoo, 20, signed a three-year contract with the NHL's Nashville Predators on May 29, making him the first Inuk to play professional hockey.

The call came while the former Rankin Inlet resident was in Iqaluit on a trans-Northern speaking tour aimed at youth.

"It couldn't have happened in a better place. I'm in the capital of Nunavut, I'm a Nunavut-born player," said No. 22 with the Brandon Wheat Kings. "It's an honour to be the first [Inuk player]. At the same time I know there are lots of talented kids up here who, if they put there mind to it, can attain their goals. I'm trying to pave the way for aboriginal youth."

He walked a diplomatic line when asked about being a Canadian playing on an American team.

"I believed in being drafted to an expansion team and I can't think of a better place to be drafted to," he said.

Tootoo first laced up his skates as a child in Rankin Inlet.

He played peewee Hockey for the Young Bulls in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories in 1995 at the age of 12. He played for Canada's national under-18 hockey team in 2000. He was a fourth-round pick for the NHL in 2001, when he was selected for the Predators.

The hard-hitting, goal-hungry right-winger spent the last two years preparing for his transition to professional hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Junior A Western Hockey League.

His athletic accomplishments earned him a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2002.

Training with Predator teammates starts this summer. Pre-season games begin in the fall. Tootoo declined to disclose his salary.

"The deal is done, but I don't want to talk figures. I'm happy. I got what I asked for and I'm honoured that [the managers] believe in me. I'm going to do whatever it takes to crack the line-up. This is one of the many milestones I've achieved, and there are bigger and better things to come," Tootoo said.

Already a household name in Nunavut, the 5-foot 8-inch forward won the hearts of Canadians in January while playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship. The team brought home a silver medal.

Adding to Tootoo's popularity are products sporting his name, including clothing, hockey pucks and bobblehead dolls.

"It's supposed to look like me but he needs a tanning bed. He's a little pale," he said of his miniature lookalike.

Tootoo grew up playing hockey with his older brother Terence. The two were training in Brandon last September when Terence, apparently distraught over an impaired driving charge, killed himself.

"I know he's up there looking down on me, giving me a high-five. This is what he'd love to become one day, a pro player," Tootoo said.

Tootoo will be based in Nashville – home of the Country Music Hall of Fame and anything barbequed.

While in Iqaluit last week, Tootoo, the official spokesperson for the NorTerra Group of Companies, visited schools and encouraged students to stay in school and follow their dreams.

Students in turn questioned Tootoo about his hobbies (hunting and camping), his favourite colour (blue), his favourite animal (polar bear) and his second choice for a team number.

"Fifty-five. You know why? Because it's 22 backwards when you look in a mirror," he told Nakasuk school students.

Premier Paul Okalik signed Tootoo as an "official role model" for the Government of Nunavut's poster campaign. The poster is due out this summer.

After stopping in Rankin Inlet and Yellowknife, Tootoo will head to Nashville. He said it's too soon to say when he'll be back but added, "there is always time for home."