NHL player Jordin Tootoo nets rock-star attention during Nunasi tour
"I’m doing what I love to do and inspiring a lot of these young kids"
Even with the tinny audio system and poor acoustics at a small gym in the Nunavut community of Qikiqtarjuaq, Jordin Tootoo’s message comes out loud and clear.
“I’m just a regular Inuk,” said Tootoo — the only Inuit National Hockey League player — July 27 in Qikiqtarjuaq as part of the 2013 Nunasi Corp. Community Tour.
And in many ways — despite the money, fame and endorsement deals — Tootoo is just that.
Tootoo, who grew up in Rankin Inlet, isn’t shy about opening up on the personal issues, such as suicide and alcohol abuse, that plague Nunavut’s communities today.
In 2002 Tootoo’s brother, Terence, died by suicide. And in 2010, Tootoo sought help for an alcohol abuse addiction, leaving the future of his hockey career in limbo.
When Tootoo brings the word “suicide” up among a crowd of 40 people sitting around Qikiqtarjuaq’s community gym, the room’s buzz of conversation tapers off as Tootoo commands everyone’s attention.
“What hit me was hearing him. He’s experienced the same experiences, the loss of suicide. Here in the communities, there have been many families that have lost through suicide,” said Mary Killiktee, mayor of Qikiqtarjuaq.
“Obviously in every community things like that happen. At the end of the day, it’s about helping each other, and listening to the person next to you,” Tootoo said before also telling the crowd about his two-and-a-half years of sobriety, which received a large applause and lifted the mood.
Tootoo doesn’t mind bringing these issues again and again.
“No, you know what? When you’re comfortable in your own skin, it’s not a problem at all,” Tootoo told Nunatsiaq News.
“People can relate to a lot of my experience up here,” he said. “When I can talk about it and be comfortable with it, it opens doors for other people to open up.”
This lesson, along with making sure kids go through the educational system and being a healthy person, were the main topics of the tour.
As part of the tour, Tootoo, a spokesperson for the Nunasi Corp., which owns the Canadian North airline, made stops in Kimmirut, Qikiqtarjuaq, Clyde River, Cape Dorset and Sanikiluaq.
Tootoo handed out high school graduation jackets decorated in Nunasi logos to members of the class of 2013 and to Inuit beneficiaries who have celebrated their 65th birthday.
Nunasi officials also gave out free tote bags, and held draws to win Canadian North airplane tickets for two to Ottawa — promoting their brand and job opportunities in the Inuit birthright company.
At the Qikiqtarjuaq airport, Tootoo crossed the tarmac as kids pressed their noses up to the window inside the terminal building, jostling for a view of the Detroit Red Wings forward.
Tootoo casually joked with some kids in Qikiqtarjuaq — as he left the terminal, Tootoo snuck behind a youngster, poked one side of his shoulder, and hid in the opposite direction.
And when he saw Toronto Maple Leaf or Montreal Canadiens shirts, Tootoo, who now plays with the Detroit Red Wings, took the opportunity to “boo” them with a smile on his face.
In Clyde River, children swarmed the NHLer the moment Tootoo entered the Tuqqayaaq Inuuyaq Arena, which turned into an impromptu autograph signing and photo-taking opportunity.
Tootoo also sat at a table signing autographs for over an hour-and-a-half in Clyde River, pushing Tootoo’s visit well-past its scheduled time of departure.
“I’ve been a Red Wings fan since 2006,” said Eddie Arreak, 31, standing in line with his Red Wings cap in hand. “I’m [Tootoo’s] biggest fan now.”
When the time finally came to leave, about seven young girls surrounded Tootoo like he was a member of a rock band, and gave him a group hug.
Despite the rock-star status, Tootoo tries to stay “level headed,” maintaining that he’s just an average person.
“I’m doing what I love to do and inspiring a lot of these young kids, and there’s so much talent up here.
“It’s just the matter of getting their exposure and letting them know that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” Tootoo said.
And even though Tootoo said he likes to boast about being from Nunavut with his teammates in Detroit, and about the Inuit culture, he thinks an increasing exposure to a southern lifestyle is a “great thing” for kids in remote communities.
That’s a different mentality than what he was used to growing up in Rankin Inlet.
“Back in the day it was out of the ordinary to experience the southern life and have that exposure,” said Tootoo.
“When I was a kid growing up, we didn’t travel too much because we were comfortable with what we had.
“[But] when you educate yourself on different aspects of the world and bring it back to the North, it’s only for the good. We’re teaching more and more people in the southern regions about our culture and traditions, and its visa versa too,” Tootoo said.
Tootoo ended his trip in Iqaluit as a guest of Canadian North beside Qikiqtaaluk’s check-in counter at the Iqaluit airport from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
After that, he goes to Rankin Inlet to visit friends and family.