Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tootoo exorcises demons

Preds winger is off the bottle and on top of his game

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Jordin Tootoo had to know the questions were coming. And deep down he most certainly understands that the whispers will continue and the cynics will remain unconvinced that all is right in his world again.

But that matters little to the 28-year-old Nashville Predators' winger, born in Churchill, raised in Rankin Inlet. Yes, there he stood in front of a media scrum following Friday's morning skate ready and willing to talk about his past demons and detail how the dark cloud that once hovered over his career has been replaced by a bright, blue sky.

"There comes a point in life where you have to take a few steps back and re-evaluate your whole situation," said Tootoo. "That's what I chose to do. Now each and every day brings a new task and when you set goals you want to do the best you can every day to achieve them.

"It's nice to wake up with a clear mind every morning and up to any challenges I may face."

It was just over nine months ago that Tootoo made one of the most important and difficult decisions of his life. Fearing things were spiralling out of control, he voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program to receive treatment for an alcohol problem.

Fast forward to the present day and it's clear it was a decision that was not only a career changer, but potentially life-saving.

"He didn't have much order in his life and therefore his game didn't have much order," said Predators' head coach Barry Trotz Friday.

"Now he looks like he's about 10 years younger. He's got great quickness, he's got a clear mind of what he needs to do on the ice and he can make plays. He's a really hard guy to play against. I really now want to expand his role because he has that ability to give you more, be it on the power play or on the penalty kill.

"Before he didn't have enough order in the computer upstairs. It was too cloudy, it was too cluttered and now it's de-fragged, if you will, and therefore his game has de-fragged and he can have some growth.

"I'm very proud of what Jordin's done. Jordin's very proud of what he's done."

Tootoo's potential impact on any game has never been questioned, although his commitment may have been. He can be a momentum changer every time he steps on the ice as his speed and skill, coupled with his trademark feistiness, often energizes a game. And now that his life is in order, his game is blossoming again: heading into Friday night's game against the Winnipeg Jets Tootoo had one goal and three assists in three pre-season games.

"I worked hard in the off-season to prepare myself to be in the best shape possible, both mentally and physically and I feel great out there," said Tootoo, who lost his older brother Terence to suicide in 2002. "As the years go on you mature as a player and you become more comfortable in different situations.

"The more minutes you play, the more opportunities you get and the more comfortable you get out there.

"When you are mentally clear and mentally focussed that's when the game tends to slow down a little bit. It's definitely been that for me. I just want to take it one day at a time here. Without the support of my teammates and the organization of the Predators it probably would have been a little tough to do. But I have great people I have surrounded myself with and that's what drives me to become a better person both on and off the ice."

Many of those "great people," his inner circle, were at the MTS Centre for Friday's game-day skate. By puck drop, it would be substantially more. "I don't know how many," he said with a grin, "maybe 100."

Once included on a Sports Illustrated list as one of the 'Notable Pests of the NHL', it's not just Tootoo's game that makes him unique -- he is also the first Inuit player to suit up in the bigs. He still wears that badge proudly and hopes to be a role model for others.

"I'm just trying to pave the way for not only Inuit people but Aboriginal athletes out there," Tootoo said. "The sky's the limit.

"At the end of the day it's how much you want it and how hard you work. I wanted to give myself every opportunity to be in this league for as long as I could. I was at the point of my career where I knew I could play better hockey. When you fix things away from the game you become more of a professional on and off the ice."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 C2

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