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The Life


February 5, 2003
Brother's Keeper
ESPN The Magazine

A caribou stands apart from its herd on the treeless, endless white permafrost just south of the Arctic Circle. A boy, bundled in sheepskin, watches from a distance. Jordin Tootoo quickly and silently squares to the animal and lifts his shotgun. He squints into the bleary sunlight and the subzero winds. He shoots

The animal sidesteps, tips, collapses. Tootoo rushes to it, the snow crunching loudly beneath him. He kneels beside his prey, scanning it, breathing heavily. He reaches into his coat and unsheathes a glimmering knife. He plunges it into the caribou's stomach, slicing it open. Blood seeps everywhere, steaming. Tootoo reaches into the wound. He closes his right hand around the kidney and tugs swiftly. Now he holds the organ, looks at it for a moment, and then puts it into his mouth.

This is what survival always meant to Jordin Tootoo. It meant knowing how to sustain himself for days, weeks, out in this Arctic wilderness, where his people -- the Inuit -- have survived for centuries. Tootoo grew up near an old nickel mine in the town of Rankin Inlet on Hudson Bay, fewer than 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. He learned to build shelter from chunks of glacier and to kill animals for food. He learned to depend on himself alone, ignore pain, shun fear.

And he learned hockey. He found survival on a rink easy compared to survival on the land. Of course he could skate in a game. He had skated for miles on the cracked sheets of a frozen sea whose only vista is the unbroken horizon. Of course he could withstand the racist taunts and thrown fists of larger boys. He had withstood the angry power of polar bears, musk oxen and beluga whales.

His 5'9" frame would not keep him from journeying down south, from becoming the first Inuk drafted into the NHL, from contending for a place in Nashville. Of course he can make it as a Predator. He was raised to be a predator.

Jordin Tootoo knows a great deal about survival. He is among the best junior hockey players in Canada, even though he comes from a place with no organized hockey. He is a national icon, even though he comes from a three-year-old territory called Nunavut that was only an aboriginal dream when he was born 20 years ago. Raised in a community of improbable survivors, Jordin Tootoo's tale is the most improbable of all.

But now survival means something else entirely. Tootoo must now cope with something no wind or cold or darkness could prepare him for. He has made it through the most unbearable of Arctic winters and the most incalculable of hockey odds. Now, with his dream so close at hand, Tootoo is surviving the suicide of his only brother.

***

So much of Jordin's story comes back to his name. Not his English name -- his Inuit name, Kudluk. It means thunder. Jordin's father, Barney Tootoo, was born in a shack on the Arctic Circle to a carpenter and a cleaning lady, raised on the land and trained as a hard-rock miner. He married a Ukrainian woman, Rose, had three children -- two boys -- and taught them to be strong and certain. No matter what happens out on the land, Barney Tootoo told Jordin and his older brother, Terence, don't panic. Waste of breath, waste of time, waste of body heat. Be above the elements -- like thunder.

And the boys would be tested. Like the time a blizzard caught Barney and them during an ice-fishing trip. The wind shredded their tent, and the whiteout kept them stranded for four days. They could not stray or sleep. Terence was 10 years old; Jordin 7. But not a tear was shed. "Dad was always 100% certain," Jordin says.

Slowly, the boys absorbed Dad's confidence. Soon they were Ski-Dooing across town (just one road in Rankin Inlet), camping out by themselves, bringing home dinner. Soon they were canoeing alongside beluga whales in the bay, waiting for them to breach, and hopping onto them with lassoes twirling in the icy spray. And then there's the story about Jordin spotting a seal from his boat. He picked up his harpoon, tied it to his right wrist with a length of rope, and fired just as a gale hit. Jordin fell backward in the boat as the weapon sailed. The rope scraped his hand so badly that a section of flesh completely peeled away, leaving a plume of smoke in its wake. Didn't that hurt? Jordin just laughs.

When Jordin and Terence weren't hunting, they were playing hockey. And there wasn't much difference. How could Barney inspire anything but ferocity as a coach? He put the kids on skates when they were 4 and managed the indoor rink in town even though there was no organized league to run. Jordin fell to his knees and cried when the puck eluded him, but "Get up!" was all he heard. There were no excuses out on the land, and none on the rink. So Jordin learned to skate and spar with Terence and the older kids. The brothers blasted slap shots into plywood under the summer midnight sun and bloodied the rec room walls in the winter. By the time he was a teen, Jordin had the hardest slap shot anyone in Rankin had ever seen. Goalies saw him coming and simply vacated the crease -- choosing humiliation and defeat over searing pain.

The Tootoos needed a bigger stage -- a place where the streets were paved with pavement. Barney never liked his people's reluctance to leave -- "Let them see what's out there" -- so he sent Jordin, 14, to bantams in Alberta. A year later he joined Terence on a Native Canadian junior team -- the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard -- in Manitoba. The culture shocks came like lightning (Trees? Street-lights? Fast-food? ATMs?) but the boys hung in. "Fight your way through," Barney always said. They did. Once, a bunch of punks set Jordin's schoolbooks on fire. Jordin turned to see four gangly guys laughing, took a deep breath and challenged them all. He had to throw only four punches that day.

He threw more -- so many more -- on the rink. In his first bantam game, he decked some chump and got suspended for the next five. Jordin simply thought fighting was allowed -- just like in the shinny games back home. So when former NHL goalie and Nashville scout Rick Knickle helped coach one of Tootoo's games, Jordin asked him if it was okay to fight. Knickle said of course it was. Tootoo nodded and proceeded to knock out a blond opponent. "You've done that before, I take it?" Knickle asked Tootoo after the shift. "Yes," Jordin said breathlessly. "And I plan on doing it again."

Knickle loved it. Not just the fighting, but the sheer style of Jordin's game. He loved the story about Tootoo running himself so hard into the boards that he knocked himself out. He loved the high-pitched whistle Jordin made before a big hit -- like the shrill scream of a bottle rocket just before it explodes. He loved the slap shot -- in the high 90s. Most of all, he loved the kinetic energy, the buzz in teammates when Tootoo took the ice, the whooping of his name that turned a quiet rink into some sort of ice-rimmed aviary.

Knickle lobbied hard for this polite but driven kid. Predators GM David Poile listened. In June 2001, Nashville traded three picks to Philly in exchange for a fourth-rounder who is now known as the first Inuk drafted into the NHL. The Preds kept him in Brandon, Manitoba, for seasoning in the WHL, where he immediately became a favorite son. He was irresistible: Jordin Tootoo, born (wouldn't you know it) on 2/2, wearing No. 22; the rough-and-tumble Brandon Wheat King from a place that can't produce a blade of grass.

And Terence? He never quite matched Jordin's talent. But no one back in Rankin cared, especially when Terence signed with the ECHL's Roanoke Express last August, becoming the first Inuk to play pro hockey. Terence talked nonstop about his little bro, borrowing teammates' cell phones to call after games. The two spent summers together in Brandon: at hockey camps, selling caribou jerky at their Team Tootoo store (website: TeamTootoo.com), giving inspirational talks at schools and community centers, and working in the pro shop at the local golf course -- where occasionally they would huddle in the walk-in freezer for that familiar Arctic chill. They were always smiling, always making time for worshipful kids, always dreaming of the NHL, always together. "They were best friends," says Wheat Kings D Reagan Leslie. "I wish I was that close with my brother."

On Aug. 28, the Tootoos had dinner together, as they did almost every night, just days before Terence was to leave again for Virginia.

The next morning, Wheat Kings GM Kelly McCrimmon got a call from Neil Roy, Jordin's host. Terence had been pulled over for driving while intoxicated. The police drove him to the Roy home and dropped him off. Now he was missing. So was a shotgun. McCrimmon bolted out of the office and sped across town to the Roys'. The police arrived. They brought the dogs. Neil and wife Janene led Jordin, McCrimmon and the cops to the backyard. The dogs led the way into the woods. Jordin watched from the back porch, ashen-faced, listening as the brush crunched loudly with every hurried step. Minutes -- an eternity -- passed. Then the policemen emerged. Roy was summoned. He ran, stopped, listened -- and crumbled to the ground with an anguished wail. Terence was dead, at 22.

He left a note: "Do well, Jor. Go all the way. Take care of the family. You are the man. Ter."

What was in Terence's mind, in his soul? Pressure? Shame? Desperation? Or something deeper? "Suicide was once noble in Inuit society," says a mental health expert from Nunavut who asked not to be named. "If you were no longer productive or useful, then it would be noble to do away with yourself so your unit wouldn't have to take care of you. There are still elements of that alive." Terence, still feeling the effects of the alcohol, may have felt he had failed to survive as a hockey idol and therefore didn't deserve to survive as a human being. He may have believed, for a tragic moment, that his survival actually hindered Jordin's. "I think he thought [the DUI] was the end of his life," Rose Tootoo told a Winnipeg newspaper, "that his hockey career was going down the drain."

And what was in Jordin's mind, in his soul, as he read that note? As he cried in McCrimmon's arms? As he sat wordlessly next to his wordless father on the way back to Brandon after picking up his parents from the Winnipeg airport? As he asked to be brought to the rink the next day to watch Wheat Kings tryouts? As he asked his teammates to wear their jerseys to Terence's memorial service? As he shook his head no when the Predators offered to let him stay home from tryouts in Nashville to grieve? "It's very common for Inuit people to do things for dead family," says the Nunavut counselor. "It might make him more determined than ever."

So this is how Jordin Tootoo survives now: He plays. He went to Nashville. He sprinted from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned building to get out of the unfathomable late-summer heat. He wondered how anyone could live there. But he would live there someday. He had the hardest slap shot in the system, and the second-best bench press, and he fought everyone who wanted a shot at him and some who didn't. He had those honkytonkers whooping his name. And he nearly made the Predators. "His chances are very good for next year," says Poile. The Preds sent Jordin back to Brandon, where he scored five points in his first game and 25 goals -- 57 points -- in his first 35. Canada picked him for its World Juniors squad in December and soon the Halifax fishermen were screaming, "Tootoo!" He wrote "Nunavut" on his stick, and now he's the newest province's first national hero. Jordin was a sensation in Nova Scotia and Canada won a silver medal -- he told friends and family it was the best three weeks of his life.

Now he's back in Brandon, where they've started selling a Tootoo bobblehead for (what else but) $22 a pop. Before every game, he eats caribou head sent from Rose back in Rankin with marinara sauce from a jar. But he refuses to say word one about Terence to anyone besides close friends and family. "I just want to play hockey," Jordin says. "I don't want to think about anything else."

But Jordin has time -- so much time -- to think. The team bus rides are as long as 26 hours. Most nights he lies down only steps away from where his brother ended his life. One team official recently spotted him helping an equipment manager fold jerseys because he didn't want to be alone in his room. Next month is Terence's birthday. The off-season is getting closer, and then another trip to Nashville. Jordin is strong and certain as ever. But there will be dark moments, frightening moments, frightening questions. What if I don't make the NHL? Why didn't Terence call? Would I have called?

Surviving has meant long seasons and longer winters. Surviving Terence will take a lifetime.

***

Because there are no trees for paper, Inuit lore is not written, but spoken. The stories that have made it down through generations are almost all about survival. The more an elder had to withstand -- famine, cold, disease -- the more he is revered. Many Inuit are named after heroes from past generations, and the spirits of those heroes are said to live on in those who carry their names. Jordin wants the name he shares with his brother to survive for decades -- maybe centuries.

"The kids look to me," he says. "I hear them on the rinks saying, 'I'm Jordin Tootoo!' It tingles my spine. I'm the stepping stone. I'm paving the way." He can hear his story already being told on black, frozen nights all over this dark, barren territory. The story tells of a young man who journeyed to a distant land, carrying the hopes of his people and the memory of his fallen brother.

Somewhere in Jordin's mind and in the imagination of the children, the story goes on. It tells of the night the young man scored his first NHL goal and dedicated it to his brother. How the people screamed for him, they will say. How they chanted a name -- a family name -- that burst up into the rafters, rattled the walls, and cascaded down, over and over, like thunder.

This article appears in the February 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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