'All the way' now means giving back for the NHL's 1st Inuk player

Jordin Tootoo says sobriety and family are his greatest gifts in life and he now wants to give back by advocating for mental health, suicide prevention and substance abuse treatment.

Jordin Tootoo, who's now retired, says sobriety gave him an extra 8 years in the league

Jordin Tootoo, who retired from the NHL on Friday, is pictured here playing for the Detroit Red Wings. He also played for the Nashville Predators, the New Jersey Devils and the Chicago Blackhawks. (Duane Burleson/Associated Press)

Announcing his retirement from professional hockey in Brandon, Man., on Friday was like "coming full circle" for Jordin Tootoo.

"It was an unbelievable experience to see how much the fans appreciated my time in Brandon," he said in an interview with CBC North. "I had the opportunity to wave one last time to the great fans of Brandon and the hockey world."

My out was hockey, my happy place was hockey.- Jordin Tootoo

For the right-winger with a hard-hitting reputation, coming full circle has also meant facing tragedy, battling addiction and finding sobriety.

A turning point

Tootoo was playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League when he was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2001. He would become the first Inuk player in the NHL.

Jordin Tootoo made history when he became the first Inuk to be drafted by an NHL team. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

He says leaving his small home town of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, for Brandon in 1999 was a "no-brainer."

"To leave home under the circumstances I was in … with alcohol and drugs being present…. My out was hockey. My happy place was hockey," he said.

But it was also while he was with the Wheat Kings that Tootoo lost his older brother — and teammate — Terence, to suicide.

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

Terence had always been Tootoo's role model and best friend. His death was one of the hurdles in Tootoo's journey from a kid who just wanted to make the NHL, to an advocate for mental health, suicide prevention and sobriety. 

At the time, however, being a role model wasn't even on his radar.

"Being that young — 19, 20 years old — all that was on my mind was to fight for everything I had to do in order make it to the NHL," he said.

The title of Tootoo's biography is an homage to his brother, Terence.

"I could either leave the game and, you know, stop pursuing our dream to play in the NHL, or like my brother said, go all the way."

That reference is a riff on the title of Tootoo's 2014 book, which draws on a note Terence left his younger brother before he died, encouraging him to go "all the way."

"All the way" meant playing 12 years with Nashville and Detroit, where Tootoo made his name as an enforcer and a fighter. 

But Tootoo also turned to alcohol to deal with the pressure of the game, the loss of his brother and his family's history with substance abuse.

By 2010, Tootoo's bosses gave him an ultimatum and he voluntarily entered the NHL's substance abuse program.

"For me it was either my hockey career or am I going to let the battle with alcohol win," he said. 

A second chance

Tootoo went on to play eight more years in the NHL, moving on to the New Jersey Devils and Chicago Blackhawks. 

I can only hope I've done my brother proud.- Jordin Tootoo

He says he's grateful he was able to fulfil the dream he and Terence shared.

"I got to play 13 years in the NHL and I can only hope I've done my brother proud," said Tootoo.

Family and the future

Even at the height of his career, and despite his complicated home life, Tootoo often came back to Rankin Inlet, where anyone walking into the community arena passes under a larger-than-life painting of the hockey player in action.

The biggest gift that's ever been given to me is my two kids and sobriety.- Jordin Tootoo

"To me, home is always going to be home," he said, adding that it's also an opportunity to hunt, fish and spend time with family.

Jordin Tootoo, seen here in Rankin Inlet, says he's thankful to Nunavummiut for the support they give him. (Noel Kaludjak)

"They've been by my side since day one," he said. "Didn't matter what issues we faced. We stuck together and that's what family's all about."

Tootoo's now been sober now for eight years

"I'm feeling fantastic," he said. "I have two healthy baby girls, a beautiful wife that I get to spend more time with and ultimately the biggest gift that's ever been given to me is my two kids and sobriety."

WATCH: Jordin Tootoo speaks with Northbeat host Juanita Taylor about his plans to work with Indigenous youth.

Jordin Tootoo on his retirement plans

5 years ago
Duration 4:27
Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk player in the NHL, speaks with Northbeat host Juanita Taylor about his plans now that he's retired from the league. He says he wants to work with Indigenous youth on mental health and suicide prevention.