Calgary

'Hope and having purpose': Ex-NHL Indigenous player visits southern Alberta First Nation

Siksika First Nation members gathered to listen to Jordin Tootoo, a professional Inuit athlete from Nunavut who travels throughout Canada to speak with Indigenous people.

Jordin Tootoo says he's focusing on giving back and spreading the message that anything is possible

Jordin Tootoo was given a blanket from Darryl McDonald, Mona Royal and their daughters Lydia McDonald, right, and Harmony McDonald, left.

Community members and guests gathered to take in a former NHL player's message of hope at the Siksika Deerfoot Sportsplex this week.

They gathered to listen to Jordin Tootoo, a professional Inuit athlete from Nunavut, who played with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings before getting drafted to the NHL in 2003.

After his 15-year career, Tootoo now travels to First Nation communities across Canada to share his life story as a former professional hockey player and to advocate for mental health awareness, at-risk youth supports and suicide prevention.

The 19th Siksika Nation Health Fair, which promotes all elements of First Nation health, welcomed Jordin Tootoo as this year's keynote speaker.

"Aboriginal communities is my focus. I have been doing a lot of these speaking engagements throughout my hockey career," Tootoo said. "I think for me now, it's about giving back. I feel that this is an opportunity that I get to share my life story to help the next generation."

Tootoo became the first Inuk to join the National Hockey League when he joined the Nashville Predators. He previously acknowledged how warmly the city embraced him while he grieved the loss of his older brother Terrence Tootoo, who died by suicide in 2002.

Jordin Tootoo at age 15, left, with his brother Terence Tootoo, 18, in Portage La Prairie, Man., in 1998. The two were playing for the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard. (Fred Greenslade/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

Tootoo later sought treatment for alcohol abuse and then wrote a book, All the Way: My Life on Ice, as part of his healing process. He also runs a foundation for suicide prevention and anti-bullying programming. 

During his career from 2003 to 2018, he was considered one of the league best agitators. He secured 64 goals, 96 assists and 1,008 PIMs (penalty infraction minutes) in 717 career NHL games with the Predators, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and the Chicago Blackhawks, before retiring last year.

Tootoo said that, by telling his story, Indigenous people can relate through the adversities they face. He said he's letting them know there is light at the end of the tunnel.

"Hope and having purpose," Tootoo said.

"Ultimately by telling my story, it shows a lot to community members that… it doesn't matter where you come from. Anything is possible."

Life challenges

He wanted to open up a conversation about life challenges on the reserve for First Nation people.

"This is event is an opportunity I couldn't pass up to connect with our people, to truly understand the way of life," he said. "It's all about educating each other and educating the average Canadian."

Learning from his life experience, he said it's better to be open and honest.

"I am grateful for everything I experienced in my life; I've taken constructive criticism to fuel my passion to be the person I am today," he said.

Jordin Tootoo was playing with the Chicago Blackhawks when he retired in 2018. (Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

Tootoo said he appreciated Siksika Nation for the invitation to speak to their community members, saying, "it's honour to be on Blackfoot territory."

Siksika Nation Community health Team leader and event Co-organizer, Faye North Peigan said they chose the Ex-NHL player as part of this year's event theme.

Tootoo talks with brothers Ty, 7, Brett, 11, and Luc Haukaas, 9, left to right, from The Pas Man., as they attend a team practice at the World Junior Hockey championship. Tootoo's late brother Terence boarded at the Haukaas home when he played hockey in the northern Manitoba community. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Siksika Nation Health Fair invites Indigenous celebrities each year. The theme of this year's fair was "try hard."

"[Tootoo] exemplifies youth and exemplifies the determination of youth in sports," co-organizer North Peigan said.

Build interest in health field

The fair hosts visiting health related organizations from across southern Alberta and neighbouring First Nations, complete with dance demonstrations, music and autograph sessions. It is open to the public.

The focus is to get individuals into the health field, Peigan said.

"It's not just nurses and doctors; there's many different aspects of health care," she said.

The retired hockey player plans to continue his speaking engagements in First Nation communities across Canada. He was given a blanket as thanks for his presentation.

About the Author

Livia Manywounds is a reporter with the CBC in Calgary, a rodeo competitor and a proud member of the Tsuut’ina First Nation.