When you ask Jordin Tootoo to sum up the essence of his career with the Nashville Predators—the 61 fights, the 725 penalty minutes, the many playoff runs, and all the opposing players he pissed off along the way—he’s got a simple answer:

“Mind over matter. Period.”

This simple mindset helped make Tootoo one of the most infamously popular players to ever play for Nashville. To this day he remains an all-time fan favorite, which inevitably led to “Jordin Tootoo” night at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday. It was a joyous affair, despite the loss to the Stars, and a reminder of what Tootoo meant to many fans in the franchise’s adolescent years.

And though his career spanned only eight seasons with the Predators, it turned out to be a very important eight seasons for the team as well. In a strange way, Jordin Tootoo’s growth and development as a player mirrored the growth and development of the very franchise that drafted him.

“He made us a hard team to play against.”

Jordin Tootoo spent eight seasons with the Nashville Predators after being the first Inuk player ever drafted in the NHL in 2001. He first landed on the Preds roster in 2003 and quickly became known as one of the most physically intimidating players on the team. Discipline wasn’t exactly a part of his game: he logged 137 penalty minutes in 70 games that first season, despite only getting around 8 minutes ice time per night.

Tootoo was out there to hit the opponents as often as possible, rules be damned.

Soon, hard hits, fights, and physical intimidation became Tootoo’s modus operandi. His directive by then coach Barry Trotz was simple: Go out and let the other team know what the boards feel like. Make them worried to touch the puck. And drop the gloves if needed.

“[Tootoo] is one of the toughest guys you’re ever gonna meet,” Barry Trotz said in a video tribute on Twitter. “He had a real true impact, he gave us some identity in the early years in Nashville. Made us a hard team to play against.”

The Predators had never had a player quite like Tootoo. Guys like Scott Hartnell and Cale Hulse held their own against opposing enforcers, but Tootoo brought more speed and aggression to the ice. And to the penalty box.

His reputation grew seemingly overnight. Pretty soon fans were bringing train whistles to games, using them to signal when the “2-2” train was leaving the station.

Tootoo’s physical presence on the ice is what endeared him to the fan base. It’s also what made him a manageable asset for the team when it finally started making playoff runs starting in 2006.

Improving “The Predator Way”

When the NHL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2005 brought several changes to help increase scoring and make the league a more attractive product, the Predators had to respond with some changes of their own.

They had to find a way to add some “skate and score” to their “grit and grind” identity. They didn’t need to give up on being a tough team to face (they still had Barry Trotz at the helm after all) but if they wanted to compete, they would need more skilled playmakers on the team.

In short they needed to improve “The Predator Way” to keep up with the times… call it the “New Predator Way.”

Of course, they were able to do that through free agency thanks to the new CBA. They added Paul Kariya in 2005, then J.P. Dumont and Jason Arnott in 2006. These new faces, along with Steve Sullivan and a young kid named Alexander Radulov, brought the skill level up to where it needed to be. They dazzled opponents with their puck skills and scored plenty of goals in a suddenly goal-scoring friendly league.

But as a team, they refused to give up on the “Old Predator Way.” They still wanted to disrupt the opponent at all costs, frustrate the opponent into taking bad penalties, play with some sandpaper in their game, play to “the echo of the whistle” and, most importantly, make the opponent hate playing against them, regardless of the game’s outcome.

Jordin Tootoo Nashville Predators
Jordin Tootoo amassed 161 career points, making him a relatively useful “enforcer” in the NHL. Image via Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports.

That’s where guys like Jordin Tootoo were absolutely essential, along with guys like Scott Hartnell, David Legwand, and a young up-and-coming defenseman named Shea Weber.

Adjusting A Fighter’s Mindset

For Tootoo, maintaining the “Old Predator Way” usually meant dropping the gloves. According to HockeyFights, between 2004 and 2012, Tootoo collected a total of 61 fighting majors with Nashville, by far the most in franchise history.

But even with that “fighter’s mentality” identity etched in everyone’s minds, he still found a role in the game beyond just fighting. He managed double digit points in a season seven times in his career, six times with the Predators. He exceeded 100 shots in a season three times with the Preds.

Sure, having “double digit” points and 100 shots in a season isn’t much. But brawlers and instigators rarely hit those numbers. Stu Grimson, for example, never eclipsed either mark in 14 NHL seasons.

In the late 2000s, Jordin Tootoo, much like the Predators themselves, slowly adjusted his hockey identity to fit the game as it was changing. After the 2008-09 season, when the Preds missed the playoffs for the first time in four years, Tootoo’s penalty minutes dropped drastically. Simultaneously, his point production went up.

Jordin Tootoo Nashville Predators
Jordin Tootoo had some of his most productive years after 2009, when he started spending less time in the penalty box. Source: Hockey-Reference.com

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the development of his game, it’s impossible to deny the results. Between 2009-2012, Tootoo collected 64 of his 125 points as a Predators player, over half of his career production in Nashville.

As far as what changed in his career to make that happen, Tootoo thinks his vision improved as he got older in his career.

“Earlier in my career I probably had the horse blinders on every game,” Tootoo said before Saturday’s game against the Stars. “You know, I had my target in sight. But I think as you mature and evolve as a player and you get comfortable, get confidence, it just makes you an all around player.”

Just as Tootoo had to improve his vision on the ice, the Predators had to improve their “vision” of how to build a playoff contender on the ice. The blinders had to come off; they could no longer rely on grit and sandpaper. They needed to become a more skilled team.

One deep Stanley Cup playoff run in 2017 and one Presidents’ Trophy in 2018 later and it’s safe to say they gained the vision necessary to succeed in the league.

A Changed Player, A Changed Man

By now, everyone knows the story of Jordin Tootoo’s life off the ice during his early hockey career. Alcoholism almost ruined everything for Tootoo, but a call from David Poile changed his life in 2010.

After that call, Tootoo voluntarily entered the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program in December 2010. He then reemerged a changed man late in the 2011 season. Sober and healthy, he jumped on board the Predators ride to the playoffs and helped guide them to the 2nd round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Tootoo says it’s one of the best memories of his career.

“Winning [Game 5] in overtime and then coming home to win [the series], the first playoff series win… just the noise in the arena. We couldn’t even hear our teammates. It’s a memory that I’ll remember forever. Me and [Jerred Smithson] chat about it quite often, every time we see each other.”

Jordin Tootoo Nashville Predators
Jordin Tootoo had 6 points in 12 playoff games in 2011. Image via Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports.

It’s not unfair to connect the dots here. After successfully completing the substance abuse program in 2011, Tootoo put together the best playoff run of his career in the Spring of that year. He followed that with the best regular season of his career in 2011-12, scoring 30 points.

It’s safe to say the NHL’s substance abuse program not only saved Tootoo’s life, but also his hockey career.

In a strange twist of fate, the Predators have yet another player in that same program, Austin Watson, who entered Stage Two earlier last week. Hockey aside, everyone who follows the Predators hopes that Watson can have the same personal change that Tootoo had in 2010-11.

On Saturday, Tootoo had some words of encouragement for Austin Watson, saying “I know how he’s feeling and what he’s going through. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. You know, it’s a process, it takes time.”

“It’s Come Full Circle”

There was plenty of love for Tootoo on Saturday night in Nashville. Multiple video tributes, a ceremonial puck drop, a gift by the team, a birthday message on the big screen, and plenty of train whistles.

Naturally, there was also a fight. Ryan Hartman scrapped with Stars’ defenseman Esa Lindell after Hartman exchanged blows with goalie Anton Khudobin. After the fight, Hartman gave the crowd some fist pumps on his way to the box, something that Tootoo was always known for.

But for Tootoo, last night was more about returning to the place he grew up.

“I played a lot of years here. I pretty much grew up in Nashville, so it’s just come full circle. The organization doing this for my family, it’s something we will remember forever.”

And just as Jordin Tootoo will remember this gesture by the Nashville Predators forever, the team and its fans will remember Tootoo just as long.

— Featured image via Don McPeak/USA TODAY Sports —