Out to prove he belongs

Jordin Tootoo has been working hard to establish himself as a big-leaguer in the NHL. (Winnipeg...

Jordin Tootoo has been working hard to establish himself as a big-leaguer in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun/C. Procaylo)

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Ask Jordin Tootoo what he missed about not being in the NHL last season, and he comes up with a pretty substantial list.

There's the excitement of travelling all over North America to places he only heard about as a kid, including big-time hockey cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Montreal.

There's playing before movie stars in Los Angeles and country music stars in Nashville, something nobody from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, had ever dreamed of doing before.

And there's the money, of course -- Tootoo took what he calls "a huge pay-cut" from his rookie salary of $575,000 to play in the AHL.

But you get the impression the thing Tootoo missed most during the NHL lockout was the chance to further establish himself as a big-leaguer.

"It takes time," a sweat-drenched Tootoo was saying yesterday after a skate at the River Heights Arena. "My name's out there. But I haven't really proved anything yet in The Show. One year doesn't say it all. It's just not going to happen overnight."

By now you know all about the long odds Tootoo overcame, becoming the first person of Inuit descent to make the NHL.

His story took on legendary proportions in 2003-04, when he cracked the Nashville Predators lineup as a 20-year-old, playing 70 games, scoring four goals and leading the team with 137 penalty minutes.

Two years later, the winger with the kamikaze style and fire-hydrant stature is talking as if he'll have to prove himself all over again.

"It's going to be a big season for me," Tootoo said. "The league's going to be a different story. And Nashville acquired a few players who play a similar style to me. It's going to be a challenge making the cut again."

The way Tootoo sees it, players like Darcy Hordichuk and Scott Nichol are after his job.

So he says he's trained like crazy the last six to eight weeks to get ready to fend them, and all other comers, off.

"It's going to be a battle in camp," Tootoo said. "But you've got to do what you've got to do. I ain't no heavyweight, but at the same time I'm going to back up my teammates 110%. I'm going to do whatever it takes to make the team."

To that end, the lockout might have been a god-send for Tootoo.

Limited to some five minutes per game playing on the fourth line as an NHL rookie, Tootoo's ice time went the opposite way as his salary last season, tripling to some 15 minutes.

You can bet that was better for his development than sitting on his can all winter.

"I don't think there are too many blessings in disguise with this lockout, but maybe this is one for him," Nashville GM David Poile told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after Tootoo put up 10 goals, 12 assists and 266 penalty minutes in 59 AHL games.

You won't get an argument from Tootoo.

"It opened up my mind a bit," he said. "Coming out of junior, I know I can play that skilled game a bit. It's going to take a few years before I can prove to myself, prove to other people, I can score goals. I showed that in the Western Hockey League. You become better as a player, mentally and physically, when you play more minutes."

In some ways, Tootoo's minor-league baptism just came a year late -- he fully expected to spend his first year as a pro down on the farm.

Instead, he beat the odds to make it in Music City.

Now it's time for the encore.

Just don't expect any surprises, says the man whose coach in Milwaukee, Claude Noel, compared him to a cannonball.

"I'm not going to change my game," Tootoo said. "That's what got me there, and that's what's going to keep me there."


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