On the Wild Side From a tiny Canadian town 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Jordin Tootoo hunts seals, whales and caribou for food. The hard-nosed forward will soon be in Nashville, trying to become the first Inuit to play in the NHL

Aug. 18, 2003
Aug. 18, 2003

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Aug. 18, 2003

Sports Illustrated Exclusive

On the Wild Side From a tiny Canadian town 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Jordin Tootoo hunts seals, whales and caribou for food. The hard-nosed forward will soon be in Nashville, trying to become the first Inuit to play in the NHL

The storm has passed, leaving Hudson Bay--at least that portion
surrounding the little town of Rankin Inlet--as flat and gray as
milled slate. Into the dreamy calm slides a broad-beamed, 22-foot
Moosehead canoe that easily holds its five passengers and a spare
55-gallon gas drum. Stolid and sleek, with a 55-horsepower
engine, it is a canoe on steroids. The engine sputters to life,
and as the craft weaves past dozens of rock islands, it leaves a
perfect white wake through the leaden bay, startling flocks of
eider ducks into skittering takeoffs. The lingering clouds hover
low over the water like smoke.

This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2003 issue Original Layout

The canoe's occupants are standing and watchful. In the bow,
wearing yellow slicker pants smeared with bloodstains, is
20-year-old Jordin Tootoo. Rifle in hand, he looks every bit the
predator--or is it Predator? A fourth-round choice by the
Nashville Predators in the 2001 NHL entry draft, the 5'9",
190-pound Tootoo, whose hard-nosed, fearless play at forward for
Team Canada in last year's World Junior tournament elevated his
standing in the hockey world, signed this summer with Nashville.
If he sticks with the big club after training camp, Tootoo,
already the most famous citizen in Rankin Inlet (pop. 2,300),
will become the first Inuk and first resident of Nunavut to play
in the NHL.

On this day, however, Tootoo has other things on his mind, like
hunting seals, beluga whales, caribou and geese. "Anything that
swims or moves is fair game," he says from his perch in the bow.
"I'm a predator looking for prey."

"Eleven o'clock," Jordin's father, Barney, calls from the stern.
Seventy yards ahead, above the glassy surface of the bay, the
black head of a bearded seal is bobbing. It looks the size and
shape of a football helmet. Barney cuts back on the throttle, and
as the canoe glides smoothly ahead, Jordin shoulders his .22
Magnum rifle and fires twice. The first shot skips a few yards
short of the target. The second splashes beyond the seal's head.
With a gurgling rush, the seal sounds.

Barney eases the canoe to where the seal went under, and they
wait. A full-blooded Inuk, Barney's skin is the color of saddle
leather, darker than Jordin's. (Barney's wife, Rose, is of
Ukrainian descent.) Father and son are broad-chested and short,
with bright, dark eyes and high cheekbones. There is no tension
in the boat. It is more in the nature of the Inuit to laugh at a
missed opportunity to kill than curse it, and the Tootoos are
here to have fun. No one will starve if the seal escapes. Of
greater concern is the retrieval of the carcass if Jordin shoots
one, because seals have little blubber in the summer and sink.
"You have to get to them quickly and stick them with a harpoon,"
Jordin says. "Seals are one of the hardest animals to shoot
because everything's moving--the waves, the boat and the seal."

It is several minutes before the seal comes up for air. "There,"
Barney starts to point, but Jordin, who's been hunting with his
father since he was six, has already seen it surface, some 60
yards away. Quickly, he shoots twice, and misses. The seal
resubmerges. The men wait, patiently scanning the flat gray
surface, as Barney makes slow circles with the canoe. After some
minutes they decide to move on. The seal has escaped.

It is difficult to grasp the isolation of Rankin Inlet. It is
1,000 miles north of Winnipeg and 200 miles south of the Arctic
Circle. Beyond those numbers, it is an inland island, cut off
from the rest of Canada by seemingly endless tundra. No roads
lead into town. The only way to get there is by plane or boat.

Nunavut is one of the least populated expanses of North America,
a 770,000-square-mile expanse that was carved out of the central
and eastern parts of the Northwest Territories in 1999. Just
28,000 people live in an area three times the size of Texas, or
about one person per 28 square miles. Eighty-five percent of
those residents are Inuit--Eskimos to Barney's generation--people
who have traditionally lived off the land by fishing for cod and
arctic char, and hunting caribou, seals, whales, geese, ducks and
even polar bears. No trees grow on the tundra, so until gas and
electricity arrived in the 1950s and '60s, the Inuit rarely were
able to cook their food. They dried fish in the breeze after
dipping it in salt water, or ate it raw, as they did with their
meat. "To us, fast food is when you shoot an animal and eat it
right there," Tootoo jokes.

The traditional ways are still practiced to some degree in Rankin
Inlet. Caribou is dried into jerky, seal is eaten raw and the
skin of the beluga whale--muktuk--is chewed as a delicacy. "The
meat of the beluga is too rich for us, so we cut it up and give
it to the dogs," Tootoo says. "We only eat the skin, dipped in
soy sauce."

Until recently muktuk was the primary source of vitamin C in an
Eskimo diet. But now Rankin Inlet has a stocked grocery store
offering everything from iceberg lettuce ($3.43 per head) to
fresh corn ($1.35 an ear) to orange juice ($7.59 per half
gallon). Most of the residents live in ranch-style single-family
homes with electricity, telephones and gas or electric ovens.
Many, like the Tootoos, have satellite TVs and Internet access.
There's a pizza shop, a store that rents DVDs and a 65-room
hotel. All the comforts of a rural Canadian town.

But Rankin Inlet is different in other ways. Upon entering
someone else's home, "no one knocks," Barney says. "Only the RCMP
[Royal Canadian Mounted Police] knocks." Everyone from
10-year-old kids to 80-year-old grannies gets around on
all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). And in the summer, when there's
sunlight for as many as 22 hours a day, time is suspended. It is
nothing to see 10- or 11-year-old children riding bikes through
the streets or bouncing on trampolines at 2 a.m. "What I love
most about Rankin is there's no schedule to follow," Tootoo says.
"You just go with the flow. Everyone knows you, and you know
everyone. Being around simple, straightforward Inuks."

In the winter snowmobiles take over the streets from the ATVs,
and the windchill can drop to -60°. The sun rises at 10 a.m. and
sets five hours later. Since the mid-1980s Rankin Inlet has had a
covered outdoor hockey arena that seats 1,500, but there is no
refrigeration system to keep the ice frozen. The surface usually
doesn't freeze until mid-November, and by April it's melted.

Still, Rankin usually puts together some loosely organized hockey
teams. Barney Tootoo managed the rink and was a coach when Jordin
and his older brother, Terence, were growing up. (There is also
an older sister, Corinne Pilakapsi, 27, who has two children.) It
was too expensive to fly the teams to other communities for
games, so the Rankin Inlet kids skated in a house league three
times a week, scrimmaging mostly, and when weather permitted,
they had pickup games on Williamson Lake. "We only had one team
per age group [in the town], and we just played each other,"
Jordin recalls. "It was shinny, and we made the rules as we went

Barney had learned the game in Churchill, 300 miles south, where
he was raised. A right wing, he played semipro hockey for the
Thompson Hawks of the now defunct Canadian Central League, but he
made his living as a miner and, later, as a plumber. Barney liked
the game to be played rough. He taught his team to bodycheck.
Terence, three years older than Jordin, was the fiercest hitter
in Rankin. "My brother and his friends were always hard on me,"
Jordin says. "That's where I got my toughness. They'd tell me to
bodycheck the boards at full speed, and I'd do it. They just
wanted to laugh at me, but when you're nine and they're 12, it's
intimidating. My dad always told me, 'If you want to play with
the older kids, you'll have to stick up for yourself.' He'd just
laugh when I got beat up by my brother and his friends."

If Terence and Jordin were going to go anywhere in hockey, as
those who watched them at summer hockey camps in Winnipeg
believed they could, Barney knew they'd have to leave home and
play better competition. So in 1997, when Terence was 17 and
Jordin was 14, the boys moved on. Terence played Junior A for the
Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Blizzard in The Pas, Manitoba, a
team he helped lead to three championships, and captained twice,
over the next three years. Jordin played AAA Bantam in Spruce
Grove, Alberta. Everything about playing and living away from
home was tough. Stoplights? Jordin had never seen one before. The
traffic and speed of the cars? "A lot of times I just stayed
inside," he says.

The hardest adjustment was living in a town where people didn't
know who you were. "I was the only Inuk in the area, and for the
first time I experienced racism, at school," he says. "I was
living with a friend, Justin Pesony, who was aboriginal, and
gangs of kids would come to the house yelling that we weren't
going to take over their school. I had my battles off the ice.
Little did they know I'm a crazy Inuk who eats raw meat and could
butcher them up, no sweat. Eating that raw meat makes me a little
wacko sometimes."

He must have had a big meal before his first home game in Spruce
Grove, because Jordin beat up another player so badly that he was
suspended for seven games. Says Jordin, "I thought, What's the
big deal? I figured you could do anything you wanted on the ice."

It was his first time playing against kids his age on a regular
basis, and his coaches kept telling him to back off--he was too
rough. The next season he joined Terence in Junior A at OCN,
where, at 15, he was the youngest player. At the end of the year
he was voted the team's most popular player by the fans. "My
brother and I always looked after each other," he says. "If he
fought, I fought. We were wild. He was five-foot-eight, but he
played like he was six-foot-three."

They looked alike and played alike, small and feisty and
fearless. But Jordin's skills were developing faster than his
brother's. The next year Jordin went to play for the Brandon
(Manitoba) Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League, where his
style of play made him the team's most popular player in each of
the next four years. As a 17-year-old he was voted the best
bodychecker in the Kings' conference. He captained Canada's
gold-medal-winning entry in the 4 Nations tournament in Slovakia
for players 18 and under. At the Top Prospects Skills Evaluation
in Calgary that winter, he had the hardest shot (96.1 mph) in the
competition. He may have started as a roughneck, but Tootoo was
showing people he also had skill and leadership. For such a
physical player he has soft hands and projects to be a 20-goal
player in the NHL. He can score on rebounds in the tough areas
around and outside the crease.

"It was his skating ability that caught my eye," says Craig
Channell, the Predators' chief amateur scout, "and he's the best
hitter I've seen in my life."

"He's a human bowling ball," says Parry Shockey, a scout for the
Los Angeles Kings. "In one game I've seen him throw five strikes,
a couple of spares and a gutter ball when he missed a guy. He
hurts people."

"He's like Stan Jonathan with wheels," says Detroit Red Wings
scout Bruce Haralson, comparing Tootoo to the Boston Bruins
fireplug of the late 1970s and early '80s, who at 5'8" was one of
the most feared instigators in the league. "He's a little ball of
hate. Some people think he'll struggle in the NHL. Nah. I think
he'll just keep pissing people off like he did in junior."

It was the dream of Barney to see Terence and Jordin play in the
NHL. Terence wasn't drafted, but he played professionally in the
East Coast Hockey League for the Roanoke (Va.) Express in
2001-02, scoring 25 points while proving his worth as a fighter.
Off the ice everyone loved him--fans, teammates, management. He
was always smiling, talking about hockey and Jordin and Rankin
Inlet. He and Jordin called each other after every game they
played, and each listened to the other's matches on the Internet.

They were Team Tootoo. The brothers had their own website,, which sold caribou jerky and hockey souvenirs
such as T-shirts (with inscriptions that read MOVE, AND YOU'RE
FAIR GAME) and pucks. Both wore number 22. They were the talk,
and the pride, of Rankin Inlet.

Then last August everything changed. Terence was visiting Jordin
in Brandon, working out with him to get ready for the hockey
season. On Aug. 28 they went out for dinner and drinks, and
afterward Jordin stayed with a friend for the night. Driving home
alone, Terence was stopped by police and charged with driving
while impaired. After impounding his vehicle, two policemen
dropped him off at the house where he was staying. When Terence
didn't show up for their training session the next morning,
Jordin reported him missing. The RCMP went to the house and found
Terence's body in the bushes behind the house, a 12-gauge shotgun
by his side. He had committed suicide. The only note he left was
for his brother: Jor, Go all the way. Take care of the family.
You're the man. Ter.

No one saw it coming. "He was one guy you'd never thought would
do something like that," says Ron Roach, the municipality manager
of Rankin Inlet and a family friend. "We'll never know what was
going on in his head."

If anything, the tragedy made Jordin more determined to succeed,
and he buried his grief in hockey. "It's almost like there's two
of us playing in one body now," he says. Last season he had a
breakout year with Brandon, tying for the team lead in scoring
with 32 goals and 39 assists in 64 games while getting his
customary 200-plus penalty minutes. He was also a key contributor
to Canada's silver-medal-winning performance at the World Junior
tournament in Halifax, Nova Scotia, running over guys, drawing
penalties and dogging the opponent's top line. He was named
Canada's player of the game in its 4-0 win over the Czech

"When you looked outside during the tournament, the [Rankin
Inlet] streets were empty," says the town's mayor, Quasa Kusugak.
"Everyone was watching him on TV. That's all anyone talked about.
Jordin's impact isn't just on our community, but all Nunavut. His
success shows kids of his generation that they can go out and
make something of themselves. When he came home after the
tournament, 500 to 600 people met him at the airport--more people
than went to see the queen a few years ago. And none of it has
gone to his head. If anything's gone to his head, it's that he
wants to help the kids in this community more."

He already has. Spurred by Tootoo's success, the government has
come up with $400,000 to help pay for the installation of a
refrigeration system in Rankin Inlet's arena. "Now we'll have ice
by mid-September," says Roach. "Enrollment in the program will be

Barney, who has a young man's eyes, spots six caribou grazing in
the sedge meadow beyond the rocky shore, less than 1,500 yards
away. A discussion of freezer space ensues. Two days earlier the
Tootoos came upon 20,000 caribou near the Diana River, so many
that the trick was not just to shoot one, but to shoot one
without the herd stampeding. As a result of their success, the
family's caribou larders are full, and these three bulls and
three cows are left to graze the tundra in peace.

Most of the seals are 25 miles offshore, probably near Miracle
Island. The beluga whales, which usually migrate past Rankin
Inlet at the beginning of August, came three weeks early this
year, and the Tootoos haven't seen one since Jordin returned in
the second week of July. Rather than go home empty-handed, Barney
stops the canoe at a favorite fishing spot, and in 20 minutes
they catch a half-dozen cod on jigs. He fillets them on shore in
the endless twilight of a northern summer evening as Jordin loads
the canoe on the trailer. It is 12:30 a.m. when the hunting party

Rose, the family matriarch, is still up. Blunt and salty-tongued,
she would tell a queen or a prime minister where to take a hike.
And she is protective of her men. "She roars like a lion," says
Barney, "but is a kitty inside."

Rose takes the fillets from Barney and starts preparing the fry
pan, melting butter and Crisco. She dredges the fillets in flour,
salt and pepper. After cooking them, she sets the steaming-hot
fillets on a paper towel. Picked up by fingers, they are Arctic
candy. Then Rose announces she's heading out to play cards with
the ladies. It's 1:15 a.m.

"You know what our family motto is?" she asks, turning from the
door that has never known the rap of knuckles. "We're not the
best, but we're hard to beat."

COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW VAUGHAN/CP A WORLD AWAY When he's not harassing opponents on the ice, Tootoo might be found hooking arctic char on Hudson Bay.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA [See caption above]THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA ISOLATED The only way to get to the inland island of Rankin Inlet, where Inuit tradition is carried on, is by plane or boat.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE TOOTOO FAMILY (BOTTOM LEFT) HOMETOWN HERO Tootoo (right, at eight and playing for Brandon in 2002-03) is a sure sign of success at the local rink.COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN/CP (BOTTOM RIGHT) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO MEMORIES Jordin, who with Terence (below, right in photo) filled a room with mementos, has a niece and nephew to hug.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA FATHER'S WAY Barney, a semipro winger in his day, taught Jordin to play tough and now guides him in their hunt for caribou
"The meat of the beluga is too rich for us, SO WE GIVE IT TO THE
DOGS," says Tootoo. "We only eat the skin, dipped in soy sauce."
TERENCE AND JORDIN WERE TEAM TOOTOO. They both wore number 22.
The brothers were the talk and pride of Rankin Inlet.
"When Jordin came home," says Mayor Kusugak, "MORE PEOPLE MET HIM
AT THE AIRPORT than went to see the queen a few years ago."