You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myPalmBeachPost.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myPalmBeachPost.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myPalmBeachPost.com.

Blackhawk Tootoo relishes sober life after years of alcohol abuse


Jordin Tootoo sits at the dining room table cradling his daughter while she drinks from a bottle, laughing when the 8-month-old gives a contented "ahhh." 

That scene is a stark contrast to when, as a teenager, Tootoo showed up to his future wife's Sweet 16 birthday party carrying a six-pack of beer. Or later when he would grab his best friend by the ankles to drag him out of bed so the two could go on drinking binges during a time when Tootoo's out-of-control lifestyle nearly derailed his NHL career. 

The Jordin Tootoo of today, a winger for the Blackhawks and devoted family man who says he hasn't touched a drop of alcohol in more than six years, has moved on from what he refers to as his "past life." 

It was a life that, beginning in his teen years, meant drinking to excess during the harsh days and nights spent not far from the Arctic Circle -- in a town where the only way in or out was by plane or snowmobile. It was a way of life that escalated after the suicide of his brother and reached its apex after Tootoo became the first player of Inuk descent to reach the NHL, where fame and fortune only fueled the opportunities to drink. 

Tootoo does have a new life, one spent substance-free and trying to help the Hawks win the Stanley Cup and coming home to a loving wife, Jen, and daughter, Siena, where he is now as comfortable as he ever was on the ice. 

"You look at life from a different perspective when you're comfortable and content in your own skin," Tootoo said. "You understand the meaning of life." 

Which is? 

"Right here," he said, looking at his daughter. "It's a balance and understanding that when you create something it's not all about you anymore. I changed my ways to change the cycle for my kids, for the next generation of my family. For me, this is an opportunity to be better." 

Tootoo needed to be better. 

Like most of his family and friends, Tootoo fell into the culture that permeates the Rankin Inlet of the Nunavut Territory in northern Canada, which included little talking ("in the Arctic it's too cold to talk, so no one communicates," he said) and the abuse of alcohol. 

"Growing up, it was just a part of life," Tootoo said. "For a lot of people in the north and in isolated communities it's a way of life to use and abuse drugs and alcohol. Basically what I knew growing up was to ... wash away (everything) and not talk about it." 

Together with his brother, Terence, and their best friend, Troy Aksalnik ("when you saw one of us the other two were usually right beside," Aksalnik said) they did what teenagers did in Rankin Inlet: Play hockey and drink alcohol. 

The Tootoo brothers -- especially Jordin -- were standouts on the ice and were playing in the junior ranks when police pulled Terence over in 2002 while he was driving home alone after dinner and drinks with his younger sibling. Terence was charged with impaired driving. A short time later, Terence, 22, committed suicide. 

Thinking of his brother right to the end, he left a note for Jordin that read: "Do well, Jor. Go all the way. Take care of the family. You are the man. Ter." 

"Reading it over and over I understood why it was plain and simple and to the point," Tootoo said. "I understood exactly what he meant by 'Go all the way,' meaning go to the NHL and take care of the family financially because he was the one who always tried to keep things afloat for our family. And with 'You are the man,' he never really got a lot of credit for being a leader as far as paving the way for a lot of the young kids in the north because everyone kind of looked at me like the one who was going to make it." 

Consumed with grief, Tootoo began drinking even more heavily and continued to do so after the Predators drafted him and he made the team at 20. In Nashville, Tootoo made a name for himself on the ice with a hard-nosed style of play and off it with his hard-drinking ways. 

Trips home took things up yet another notch. 

"They don't have a liquor store there, so it's a dry community in a sense and you have to order all your liquor, which Jordin would do because he had the money," said Jen, who met Jordin when he was signing autographs at a junior tournament where she was selling merchandise. "His family would look forward to him making that big order and once it got there Jordin would take the whole town out. 'Everyone come over, it's a free-for-all.' " 

Aksalnik said when Tootoo drank "it was like there was no holding him back. He would come to our house and I'd be sleeping in the middle of the night and he'd grab me by the feet and say, 'Let's go.' My wife would be right there and she pretty much couldn't say anything. He'd pull me out of bed and we were off." 

The partying continued until Predators general manager David Poile and then-coach Barry Trotz intervened. 

"It was every other weekend I was getting called into the office, 'Toots,' what the hell?' " Tootoo said. "'You were out this late, people are saying things.' " 

Poile and Trotz directed Tootoo into the NHL's substance abuse and behavioral health program, which he entered Dec. 27, 2010. 

"It was a long time coming for me," Tootoo said. "Barry Trotz talked about his family, too, dealing with alcoholism, so he really knew what I was going through. To have someone that actually cared about you as a human being says a lot. I couldn't thank them enough for rejuvenating my life." 

Clean and sober, Tootoo continued with his NHL career and detailed his struggle in a book called "All The Way: My Life on Ice," which was released in October of '14 while he was with the Devils. He said it was cathartic to tell his story. 

"I wrote it for me personally," Tootoo said. "I felt like it was the right time in my life to turn the page and get it all off my shoulders. It helped my family understand how things are and why things were the way they were. I told them that I'm grateful for every experience that I've had. It has made me who I am today." 

Today, Tootoo is a husband and father first and a hockey player second. Living in former Hawks forward Andrew Shaw's house not far from the United Center, Tootoo, 34, has settled in domestically. 

"I never ever at the time envisioned being settled down," he said. "When you're living in that lifestyle or stuck in that dark place, you don't ever see this side of life. (Not) until maybe a year into my sobriety ... did (I begin) seeing life from a different perspective." 

Jen Tootoo, who married Jordin in 2014, described her husband's transformation from party animal to tea-drinking family man as "mind-blowing." 

"I never even thought about marrying him -- I just didn't see him as that guy," she said. "And he's just a totally different person. Not that I didn't love the guy he was before, but you just didn't even know him really. You didn't get on that level of a deeper kind of connection. When you have a past and an upbringing that has made you who you are, well, there are always things to work on and changing habits and breaking the past and the cycle. He has done a really good job of communicating and learning those skills. 

"I'm just really proud of him," she continues, her voice breaking with emotion. "I don't even think sometimes that he understands what a great person he is and how mature he has become. He puts so many people first. He's honorable. Everyone respects him. He's a man of his word and he knows who he is as a person." 

That respect extends into the Hawks dressing room, where Tootoo is a mentor to some of the team's young players after signing a one-year, free-agent contract last summer. He also earns it on the ice protecting teammates. 

"I know my role," Tootoo said. "Over the years the game has evolved. I know I can play the game, but my foundation is being a physical presence out there. Before when I played it was out of anger and frustration and I didn't really give a (damn) about my health. But for me now it's more of being a character guy and being a good teammate for the young guys. Mentally, it's a grind. It's not easy being a pro athlete. I always tell the guys, 'Page 172 out of my book is mind over matter.' " 

Tootoo's transformation also has had an impact back home in northern Canada. His sobriety is an inspiration for others, including Aksalnik, who followed Tootoo's lead and went to rehab and is living a sober life in Rankin Inlet. 

"I took the same approach he did," Aksalnik said. "I went to rehab for 30 days and straightened my life out. I did it because I knew he did it." 

Aksalnik said Tootoo has inspired "a lot of people" in Rankin Inlet. "He's a role model by playing in the NHL and now that he's not drinking, I think a lot of people look up to him." 

Being a role model suits Tootoo much better than wasting away his life in a bottle. 

"It's a daily process of being a better person, a better pro," Tootoo said. "Maybe before I sobered up I put so much stress on myself as to try to control what I can't control. I feel more at peace on a daily basis. I can go to bed at night without any stress. It's not like before when I would be laying in bed for hours, (wondering) 'What is this person thinking or what did I do two nights ago?' " 

Tootoo then is interrupted by a squealing Siena. 

"What? What?" he said to her with a smile. 

"I never knew that there was this side of life," Tootoo said again. "It has been a wonderful gift that was offered to me six years ago and I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter, and we're all healthy." 


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Sports

NHL projections: Capitals over Penguins, Rangers over Senators
NHL projections: Capitals over Penguins, Rangers over Senators

This year's Stanley Cup playoffs have already been heart-stopping and sleep-depriving. Eighteen of the 42 first-round playoff games went to overtime this year, a league record, with two of those 18 games requiring a second OT period to determine the winner. And two of the series were upsets by wild-card teams: the Nashville Predators swept the West's...
A Formula One driver in  Indy 500 is no longer blasphemy
A Formula One driver in Indy 500 is no longer blasphemy

The Formula One series was off last week, giving Fernando Alonso free time to travel to Alabama on an exploratory mission. He spent the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham getting to know his competitors and teammates for the Indianapolis 500. Alonso, a two-time F1 champion, figured to be an also-ran in next month’s Monaco Grand...
Olajuwon recalls Robinson bringing out his best in 1995 series

After Game 6 of the 1995 Western Conference finals, San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson sat at the podium inside The Summit, the legendary Houston arena, and attempted to process what had just happened. Robinson and the Spurs had dominated the NBA that season, winning 62 games, most in the league, and Robinson had deservedly taken home the Most...
Distracting or dirty, NHL agitators can provide spark in playoffs
Distracting or dirty, NHL agitators can provide spark in playoffs

Late in the second period of a scoreless Game 3 of his first-round playoff series at Madison Square Garden, Montreal Canadiens forward Steve Ott went to work. With New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello hovering around Montreal goaltender Carey Price, Ott stepped in front of Zuccarello and without warning began tousling his long locks. Zuccarello...
Inside the throwing program that helped revive pitcher’s career
Inside the throwing program that helped revive pitcher’s career

Dan Straily wore street clothes and a big smile when he walked into a nondescript warehouse-turned-workout facility in an industrial park outside Seattle last week. He visited for pleasure, not business, to say hello to some of the minds who have helped make him the pitcher he is today and to show Miami Marlins coaches Juan Nieves and Ed Lucas a significant...
More Stories