How Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk player in the NHL, conquered addiction to save himself — and his community.
At 36 years, Jordin Tootoo has already lived an extraordinary life. Born in Churchill, Manitoba and raised in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Tootoo spent the majority of his days surrounded by ice and confronted by obstacles as a young athlete who quickly rose through the ranks of the NHL, becoming the league’s first Inuk player. Despite struggling with alcohol addiction and the crippling suicide of his brother, Terence, the retired athlete has defied the odds and come out on the other side with a newfound mission to help heal his community and raise awareness around mental health and addiction.
You were the first Inuk to play in the NHL and enjoyed a great career playing with the Predators, Red Wings, Devils, and Blackhawks before retiring in 2016 after 13 seasons. What does legacy mean to you?
It’s a huge honour, first and foremost, to be the first Inuk to ever lace up in the NHL. I think at a young age I didn’t quite understand or realize the impact that it would have on the Indigenous communities throughout Canada. I’ve travelled to many First Nations communities across North America and the one common factor in our people is that we know how to persevere through tough times. A lot of us have dealt with similar issues. We understand each other. Ultimately, we struggle with a lot of issues within our communities. We all know that suicide rates are a lot higher in Indigenous communities, as well as substance abuse and mental health [issues]. At this point in my life, the right thing to do is to give back and share my story. My legacy would just be to let people know that it doesn’t matter where you come from. Anything’s possible in life if you put your mind to it and have a great support system. The sky’s the limit.
You have been an advocate for mental health awareness by drawing on your own experiences in the past. How has that journey been for you so far?
I’m only 36 years old and I’ve experienced a lot of similarities to the Indigenous communities. For me, when you’re comfortable and content in your own skin, you’re able to share that part of your life. A lot of our people are afraid to open up and be honest. I didn’t know how to communicate or express my feelings up until I sobered up and was in recovery. It took a lot of years to be where I’m at today. Things don’t just happen overnight. It’s a process. Dealing with suicide within the family and substance abuse, I look back and continuously tell myself that I’m very grateful for the life that I led and experienced because ultimately successful people fail more often than not. And people don’t see that side. I can only share my experiences and hope I can help one person along the way.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far?
To me, it’s about connecting with the land. I feel like [our people] are most comfortable and content when we’re out on the land. That’s something that I’ll never forget: where I come from, my culture, my traditions. Successful people, in my eyes, give back, share, and educate, and that’s what my intent is. It is to educate people on our history and what we believe in.
You’ve recently become a Canada Goose global ambassador as a part of their “Live in the Open” campaign, which showcases individuals who are breaking new ground and giving back to their communities. What does it mean to you to live in the open?
For me, this was a program that was the right fit. They seem to be focused on enhancing the world that we live in. My sister Corinne is a seamstress and the craft was handed down to her by my grandmother. To know that they are making a serious effort to preserve this part of our culture and heritage is very special to me. It’s also incredible that they aspire to make their jackets to the same standards that Indigenous people do in keeping us warm no matter where we live. It’s about educating and showing people that the Indigenous people are for real, and it’s something I take pride in.
There seems to be a lot of progress being made in the dialogue around mental health, but there is much work to be done. Why do you think there is still so much stigma?
In our communities, it’s years and years of verbal, mental, and physical abuse that we’ve endured. Things don’t happen overnight. Mental health issues are going to take time. It’s a process, just like my sobriety. When I entered rehab eight years ago, my initial reaction was that when I get out, life was going to be great again. Well, that wasn’t the case. It took a number of years where I had to learn how to communicate and go about things on a day-to-day basis because of change. I think our people are afraid of change and we’ve just got to get them to step outside of the box and experience being uncomfortable. When you grow up living a certain way and you’re unhappy, and things aren’t going your way, it’s a process when you change your lifestyle. It happened in my hockey career, in my personal life, and today I’m sober and just putting one foot in front of the other. I’m taking it one day at a time.
For male athletes, the stigma against mental health can be associated with toxic masculinity and what it means to be a “man”. What do you think men need to do in order to combat this, especially in professional sports?
I can totally understand that aspect around men not crying or showing weakness because in my household, that’s how it was. I never saw my father cry or back down from anyone. I think the biggest hurdle for me was to admit that I had a problem and to ask for help. It was my ego; of being known as “The Enforcer” in the NHL and then showing that weakness of not being able to control my addiction. For any man, it’s hard to admit that you’re not strong enough. And I learned in my sobriety that a real man shows emotion. It’s about conversing and opening doors. When I share my story, I see a lot of men in tears saying, “Thank you for opening up. It’s something that I need to hear.” And that’s what it’s all about.
Have you had any discussions with your former teammates or other players about this?
Absolutely. When my book came out in 2015, a lot of guys in the NHL on opposing teams were saying, “Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate.” As a professional athlete, it’s hard to air out your laundry when you’re fighting for your job every day. But ultimately, it saved my career. It gave me another eight years of playing in the NHL. I realized that opening up and being honest was the right thing to do. When you’re a public figure, everyone assumes that you’re living the life but we all fight a fight no one knows about.
You have mentioned in the past that it’s, “not about drugs or alcohol — it’s the absence of self-worth.” Can you elaborate on what that means to you?
I was a people pleaser throughout my career but when the doors were closed at home, I didn’t like who I was. When there’s a hole in your soul, how are you supposed to help other people? In order to heal, you have to connect. For me, [it was about] connecting with the land and working hard every day in order to fill that void. Now I feel comfortable and content in my own skin. I think that it’s only fitting for me to help other people in the First Nations communities.
Who has been your greatest teacher?
For me, it would be my late brother Terence. He was three years older than me. He was a father figure, a mentor, my best friend, and my brother. He paved the way for me to be successful and [helped me] understand that when you lose a loved one, their legacy lives on through another person. My purpose is to keep his legacy going and to show people that when you lose a mentor or a loved one, life doesn’t end. You have to be able to take what they’ve taught you and turn it into a positive. That’s what my brother’s given me.
What was the moment where you found your voice?
I think early in my sobriety. I sobered up December 2010 and it wasn’t until probably four or five years into sobriety where I really dug deep and was able to express my feelings and what I believed in to the ones closest to me. I didn’t know how to communicate. I didn’t know how to talk about the tough times because in my household we didn’t talk about that stuff. I think five to six years into my sobriety was where I really knew that my calling was to give back to our people and share my story. I get to wake up and go to bed every night being comfortable and content in my own skin. There’s no better feeling than that.