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A hero's welcome

Andrew Rankin
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, August 13, 2009

INUVIK - Thirteen-year-old Chloe Gillis' eyes lit up at the sight of one of her favourite NHL hockey players, Jordin Tootoo, standing right before her at the Inuvik Youth Centre on Sunday.

And the first thing the teenage animal lover asked the gritty Nashville Predators forward was whether he had a pet growing up. Upon finding out he once owned a dog, an enormous smile spread across her face.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Jordin Tootoo presented the Inuvik Youth Centre with an autographed stick and jersey on Sunday, while the kids on hand returned the generous gesture with a signed hockey stick of their own. Front row from left, Edmund Kasook, Darien Kasook, Angel Esau, Janelle Avik, Lesli Kisoun. Middle row, Ernie Gordon, Richard Stewart, Dustin Arey, Jaymes Arey, Jordin Tootoo, Chloe Gillis, Gayle Blake, and Shania Blake. Back row, Gary Harley, Jordan Norman, Marrence Cardinal, Tristin Grandjambe, Youth Centre volunteer Kym Brisebois and Youth Centre Executive Director Fatima Ahmed. - Andrew Rankin/NNSL photos

"I'm a big hockey fan," she said. "It's amazing to watch him play. He's an amazing forward. He gives it his all. He tries his hardest, which makes me want to try my hardest."

Tootoo made a surprise visit to Inuvik on Sunday to take in some of the Circumpolar Northern Games events, where he also spoke and presented awards to the top male and female athletes at the closing ceremonies. He also made time to visit the youth centre where kids from all ages showed up for a chance to have a chat and get a signed hat or hockey card. He also presented the centre with a signed hockey stick and jersey.

The 26-year-old forward has been in the NHL for the last six years. He said he feels a responsibility to give back to the youth and spread the message of the importance of education.

"I just want to encourage kids to do what they love, whether it's to become a mechanic, electrician or plumber," he said. "I'd like them to set goals and do their best to reach them."

Growing up in a small community he said it was a constant challenge to stay on the straight and narrow, adding he was fortunate enough to have many great role models and friends to help him along the way. He said the challenge for many youth is to find the strength to be the best they can be.

"You have to have a strong heart, but you need encouragement from your friends and family and support," he said. "You have to be able choose carefully your friends.

"You have to be able to be a role model, be that person who makes a difference. That's what I tried to do growing up. It seems that a lot of teenagers are too scared to make that decision."

As a teenager, Tootoo said he often played traditional games, which he said require a great amount of skill. He said he was proud that many athletes arrived in Inuvik to display their talents, and that the North produces great athletes.

"They have tremendous talent," he said. "It's great to see. The only thing I can stress is going out and seeing what else is out there in the world. There are so many world class athletes that come from the North."

Facing the final year of his contract, Tootoo is hoping to reach the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career as well as making the Stanley Cup playoffs for a shot at the title.

He said he feels no pressure, adding he'll just go out and do his best. For now he's happy to be taking a break and spending time with old friends, who help keep him grounded.

"It's just about being true to my roots, where I came from," he said. "I'm doing what I love to do. My parents always stressed to be true to yourself and remember where I came from."