It was announced on March 20th that Jordin Tootoo would be the Devils’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for the year-end awards. The Masterton Trophy is awarded to the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” It is named for the late Minnesota North Stars player who died after sustaining an injury during a NHL game. Masterton exhibited the qualities that the award is given for, and the trophy was first awarded following the 1967-68 season. The players are nominated by their team’s chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association and the winner is chosen by a poll of the chapters of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association across all NHL cities. A grant from the PHWA is also awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, which is given in the name of the trophy winner.
The trophy was first won by a member of the Devils’ organization in 1981-82 when goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch won it in the team’s final season in Denver. It was awarded to Resch for perseverance, “as he gave his young team more confidence while he served as goaltender” according to the “Legends of Hockey” portion of the Hockey Hall of Fame website. Ken Daneyko was the next member of the Devils to win the award (and the first to win when the team was based in New Jersey) in 1999-2000 when he returned to the team following his battle with alcoholism.
Tootoo’s story is similar to Daneyko in that he has had issues with alcoholism and has come back to revive his NHL career.
Born February 2, 1983 in Churchill, Manitoba, he grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut and is the first player of Inuk descent to play in the National Hockey League. Tootoo played for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League before being drafted 98th overall in the 2001 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators. He would go on to play eight seasons for Nashville before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2012 and signing with the Detroit Red Wings. His two years in the Motor City were largely unproductive and his contract was bought out following the 2013-2014 season. He was invited to the Devils training camp at the beginning of this season on a tryout basis and was signed to a one year deal just prior to the season beginning.
Since signing with the Devils, Tootoo has really come back, found his game and has produced for the team. With 57 games played, Tootoo has 9 goals, 5 assists and 14 points, with one of those goals coming on the power play and one game winner. He is also a plus-4 with 70 PIMs. But it is the intangibles that Tootoo brings to the team that have really shown what he means to the Devils. He knows when to pick his spots and some of his fights have helped ignite a Devils comeback, or get the team back from a lackluster performance. He skates very well and his speed was no more apparent than on March 20 versus Buffalo when he scored a beauty of a goal. He blocked a shot in his own end, only to carry the puck down the ice, slip it under the defenseman’s stick to himself and score on goaltender Anders Lindback’s short side, a true one-man effort that iced the game and gave the Devils the win.
For Tootoo, overcoming adversity is nothing new. In 2002, his older brother, Terence, who was a great hockey player in his own right and was playing for the Roanoke Express of the ECHL at the time, committed suicide after a drunk driving incident in Canada. Terence, who was about three years older and served as a role model for Jordin, was part of the reason Jordin wrote his recently released autobiography All The Way: My Life on Ice with writer Stephen Brunt. Terence’s suicide left Jordin with more questions and in part spurred him to get his story down on paper.
Jordin’s battles with substance abuse have also been well chronicled. In 2010, he voluntarily entered the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program run jointly by the NHL and the NHLPA to treat alcoholism. He completed the program in time to participate in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with Nashville and has been clean since.
Tootoo has been an inspiration to those watching, but he is more than that to his teammates. He is a leader in the locker room and knows exactly when to mix it up on the ice, be it physical or vocal: chirping with the other team or keeping the Devils loose on the bench. His Gordie Howe Hat Trick against the Arizona Coyotes a little while back is testament to his toughness, his willingness to get into the dirty areas on the ice and to his skill. The fact the Devils have given him power play time shows that they know that he can play the game well.
Jordin Tootoo has been an inspiration almost since the time first stepped on an NHL rink. Either as the first Inuk player to play in the league or overcoming his personal demons, he has shown the ability to be more than just a great hockey player, but also a very real human being who has persevered through some very tough times and has made good on his potential. We will find out in Las Vegas this summer when the NHL presents their annual awards show if he is voted the winner of the 2014-15 Bill Masterton Trophy.