Preds hope Tootoo is diamond in Arctic rought

Monday, June 25, 2001 at 1:00am

SUNRISE, Fla. - The desire to draft defenseman Jordin Tootoo was just too, too strong for Nashville Predators general manager David Poile.

So strong that he traded his No. 5 and No. 7 round picks in Sunday's National Hockey League Entry Draft here at the National Car Rental Center to the Philadelphia Flyers in order to move up from the No. 110 spot to No. 98 in the fourth round to pick Tootoo, who has been in organized hockey for only four seasons.

Tootoo lives in Rankin Inlet, a small town on the Hudson Bay, approximately 200 miles from the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Only gravel roads and water connect it to the rest of the world. The landscape is a treeless tundra.

While he may have grown up as an unknown he was truly the most colorful pick of the draft. Some Tennesseans might be ridiculed for their choices of foods like squirrel and rabbit, but Tootoo has everyone beat. He prefers caribou, frozen seal and Beluga whale, which he says is pretty tasty boiled and topped with a little salt and ketchup. But if there is no fire or stove handy, Tootoo will eat any of these meats raw.

Tootoo is known for his ability to deliver bone-jarring and psyche-scarring checks. He credits his diet.

"All that raw meat makes me nuts," Tootoo said. "I'm not going to change my style of play.

"I'm going to stay on the same path and keep my head on my shoulders. I'm going to turn some heads before I'm done."

When you spend your spare time running down wolves on a snowmobile, shooting caribou and harpooning whales, a little contact on the ice with another player is pretty tame.

"I got my first wolf when I was 12," Tootoo said. "I chased it for half an hour on my snowmobile and then shot him. We don't eat wolves. We use them for their fur."

Tootoo was the discovery of Rick Knickle, a North American amateur scout for the Predators who used to play for the Brandon Wheat Kings, the team that Tootoo plays for. Knickle first saw Tootoo when he was 14.

"I coached a rookie game and he was on my team," Knickle said. "He turned to me and asked me if the players could fight. He runs a guy down and fights him. He comes back to the bench and tells me he is going to do it again and he did."

Tootoo's size, 5-foot-8, helped to keep him available until the middle rounds of the draft. He was projected to be a late third-rounder. The Predators took him with the first pick of the fourth round. His 96 miles per hour slap shot was the fastest at the NHL Prospects Game in Toronto. He also had the fastest lap around the ice. Still, many teams were reluctant to consider him because they felt his overall skills weren't enough to overcome his lack of size.

In 60 games last season for the Wheat Kings Tootoo had 20 goals, 28 assists and 172 penalty minutes.

"He is just starting to absorb everything," Knickle said. "He had never seen a blue line on the ice four years ago. He has good hockey sense. He is not afraid of anybody. Last year in the first game of the year in the first shift Tootoo knocked a guy down. On the second shift he knocked him down again. The guy had a concussion and separated shoulder. I saw him after the game and the guy looked like he had been in a war.

"Jordin will hurt people. You guys are going to be amazed at how hard he can hit."

He played in more than relative obscurity in Rankin Inlet, with games mostly against his older brothers, father and other family members in a rink where the temperature routinely hovers in the minus-30 degree range. A bantam tournament in Edmonton gave Tootoo a chance to showcase his skills and at the age of 14 he went to Spruce Grove, Alberta to play Bantam AAA.

Craig Channell, chief amateur scout for the Predators, saw Tootoo play twice. He thinks Predators coach Barry Trotz will be reminded of himself when he sees Tootoo on the ice.

"Tootoo is a hard-nosed player," Channell said. "He played just like Trotzy did. I played against Trotzy in junior hockey for three years. He was one tough player. He played with energy. He was an OK skater but his heart and character made him."

Tootoo's father is an Inuit and his mother is a Ukrainian. Tootoo jokingly refers to himself as a "Ukimo", but in a more respectful tone he calls himself an Inuk. He explains that Inuk means "one" and Inuit means "many."

"Inuit is a more respectful way of referring to us," he added.

If he is able to overcome the odds Tootoo would be the first Inuit to make it to the NHL. Poile admits that the chances of any of the players in the fourth through ninth rounds making the NHL is a long shot, but he isn't counting Tootoo out.

"Sometimes when you do something that is unique they turn out to be the most dynamic situations," Poile said. "He doesn't have a lot of hockey experience so his learning curve is going to go up.

"From the character side his background would lead you into believing he is going to do anything and everything to become successful. He is a character pick. He is a tough, gritty player. But he is a long shot because of his background and a long shot because of his environment."

Still Poile was willing to give up two draft picks for a player with a "long shot" label.

"It was quality versus quantity," Poile said. "If we get one player from this part of the draft it will be fantastic."

The Predators selected defenseman Anton Lavrentiev from Russia in the sixth round; center Gustav Grasberg of the Swedish Junior League in the eighth round and defenseman Mikko Lehtonen from Finland in the ninth round.

Filed under: City News