Spend a few minutes with Jordin Tootoo, and it becomes clear why teammates around the league speak so highly of him, and why Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith spent a few days this summer selling him on the Blackhawks.
Tootoo bears the physical scars of 11 years as an NHL enforcer, and doesn’t try to hide the emotional scars of years of alcohol abuse. As a result, he projects a clear-eyed calm and undeniable confidence borne of a tumultuous past and a life-changing turn toward sobriety six years ago.
“When you look out for yourself off the ice, it leads into what you bring on the ice,” Tootoo said. “My lifestyle has changed over the last six years, obviously, being sober. And I think when you’re comfortable and content in your own skin, you have a lot of confidence.”
What Tootoo doesn’t have is a lot of offensive upside, something the Hawks desperately need up front. He did score 10 goals in 68 games two seasons ago, but has just 63 in 673 career games. His signing this summer raised some eyebrows in hockey circles, and certainly among Hawks fans. Yes, Tootoo can step into that Andrew Shaw role as an agitating, physical presence who plays bigger than his 5-9 frame and is unafraid to drop the gloves when necessary. But he’s unlikely to replace Shaw’s goal production.
Still, Tootoo knows he needs to be more than just a fighter. During his career, the traditional enforcer has been slowly phased out of the NHL. As the league has changed, so has Tootoo.
“Obviously, this day and age, the game has evolved,” he said. “You can’t just be a one-dimensional player. I know I can be put in different situations. But my foundation is being a physical presence out there, creating room not only for myself, but for my linemates. It’s just picking and choosing your spots, and being a good teammate.”
Tootoo had a spot chosen for him in the preseason opener against Pittsburgh, when Tom Sestito instigated a fight, settling a score that dates back to last season when Tootoo was with the New Jersey Devils. Tootoo, despite a significant size disadvantage, obliged.
“I didn’t think it was a very good choice by the other guy to try and instigate a fight like that,” goalie Scott Darling said. “Jordin’s a classy player and he tried to not have it turn into what it turned into. But at some point you have to defend yourself. [Sestito] had about a foot on him and you wouldn’t have known. It was fun.”
That’s what Tootoo brings. Fans and pundits justifiably bemoan fighting as an archaic and often-staged waste of time. But hockey players have an old-school mentality, and still value a guy who will put himself at risk to “defend” himself or a teammate.
And coach Joel Quenneville almost always has a guy on the roster who can handle himself in a fight, or who can make his presence felt in a game against a physical rival such as the St. Louis Blues or the Anaheim Ducks. Before Tootoo, it was Brandon Mashinter (who’s still fighting to keep his spot). Before Mashinter, it was Brandon Bollig. All of them got to the NHL with their fists. All of them stayed in the NHL by showing they could do more than just fight. That’s Tootoo’s task now.
“Every year has been a grind, but when you’re put up to different challenges, it makes you a better player and gives you a better perspective on how things work,” Tootoo said. “Obviously, 10 years ago, you had role players for a reason. And now, you’ve got to be able to play the game, you’ve got to be able to skate. The game’s a lot faster. That comes with your off-ice training, and your preparation in the summer time.”