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Terence, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Jason S Rufner
October 11, 2002 - ECHL (ECHL)

In July, the 22-year-old ordered skates and sticks in preparation for his second professional season.

In August, he was dead.

The Roanoke Express wore all-black uniforms in their home exhibition game in memory of a hard-nosed little forward named Terence Tootoo, the first professional hockey player ever to come from the frozen tundra of Canada's Rankin Inlet. This year, a memorial patch will appear on the left arm of all Express players, and a solemn black 22 will be painted beneath the Roanoke Civic Center ice. A golf tournament in Tootoo's honor will be held annually to raise funds and awareness for the prevention of suicide.

On August 29, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found Tootoo in a wooded area around Brandon, Manitoba, with a self-inflicted mortal head wound from a 12-gauge shotgun. That is all that is known for certain.

Watching Terence Tootoo play hockey was not for the feint of heart. Constantly darting to and fro in pursuit of a puck or of a foe, he was a blur of motion. Though diminutive, his presence was always noticed on the ice -- he was the one getting up in opponents' faces, harrassing, bothering, being a pest, until finally his wish was answered and the puck wound up in Roanoke possession. The obviously disgusted looks from the other team were sufficient to make one realize that he was the sort of player that one would positively hate to play against -- and love to play with.

Roanoke head coach Perry Florio had talked with Tootoo shortly before his death. Florio expressed a sad note of shock.

"Hockey was Terence's life...He was so excited every time we talked about the upcoming season," Florio told the Roanoke Times.

In his first professional season after a distinguished three-championship junior career with the OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (which he shared with his beloved brother Jordin, himself a pro prospect now playing major junior hockey), Tootoo was as impressive as any nine-goal, 16-assist forward can be. Billed as the first ever native Inuit to play professional hockey, Tootoo was instantly recognized as a player for whom the fans could root, and around whom the team could rally. His 218 penalty minutes topped the Express, and the manner in which he went about achieving those minutes earned him constant applause from admiring fans. It was not long before Roanoke sweaters bearing the number 22 were appearing in the stands. Terence Tootoo played hockey the way it was supposed to be played, with reckless abandon and an overt desire to win the game. His hunger was palpable throughout the arena.

This columnist had the good fortune of being present for Toots' (as he was universally known) first game in a Roanoke uniform, in October of 2001 against Dayton. Earlier that month, the Hockey News had predicted Florio's club to capture the ECHL's Kelly Cup. That first night, such a prediction seemed extremely plausible -- primarily because of Terence Tootoo. In a see-saw affair which included numerous questionable calls and even more frequent roughness, Roanoke emerged atop the Bombers, enduring at one point a prolonged two-man disadvantage that sapped the Express players' energy, but did not permit a single Dayton score. The insane noise of appreciation from the assembled masses made the building sway.

Stats can be misleading, perhaps most of all in the game of hockey. There is no way to tabulate being a pest, no method of counting the frustration felt when this quick-footed creature separates a player from the rest of the play. That's what Terence Tootoo did. And it will be missed.

Roanoke is a blue-collar town. The metropolitan population barely cracks 100,000, and many are at middle- to low-income levels. The sports landscape consists of Virginia Tech football and very little else. Painstakingly, after 10 years of dogged and uncertain existence, the Express have carved their niche within the Roanoke Valley. In 2001, Terence Tootoo defined it.

The Express did not win the Kelly Cup, unexpectedly falling in the first round of the play-offs. But Tootoo eagerly signed up for more in July of 2002, preparing himself for another season of that which he loved most.

In a few days, on Opening Night 2002 at the Roanoke Civic Center, there will be a moment of silence observed by fans and players alike for this rugged young man from the Great White North who inexplicably took his own life. Then, the puck will drop, the skates will carve the ice, the players will holler and the fans will scream. And every time a Roanoke player makes a crunching hit, or antagonizes an opponent, or gets in the face of a bigger man, or dives stick-first in quest of a loose puck, fans and players alike will know that Terence Tootoo was there.

* * *

"R.I.P. Toots. you will be sadly missed by your friends in Roanoke. May your family find strength to continue on in life knowing what a wonderful person Tootoo was. Thanks for the memories that you did give to us." -- Brian in Roanoke, Virginia

"Terence was one of the greatest people I have ever had the pleasure to know in my entire life. He made such a difference in so many peoples lives, and affected so many dreams of people young and old. He had the biggest heart, and that is what made me and others think so highly of him. Being good at hockey is one thing, but the way that he could make anyone feel after a bad day is another. He was an amazing person, and I doubt I will ever meet someone that is anything like him. I always told you, Ter, you are definetly one of a kind. Don't worry, Jor, you will live up to every expectation and dream he ever had for you. I know you will, He does, too. Rest in peace, Ter, I love you, and I will miss you greatly, and I will never forget you. Please take care, everyone else who is greiving, especailly the Tootoo's. Ter, I know you're watching, please take care of everyone, especially Jor." -- Meggan in Ranklin Inlet, Nunavut

"When I first heard the news about Terence I was in total shock, I couldn't believe it. He was a wonderful person and a great hockey player. When my family first learned about Tootoo coming to play for Roanoke we were very excited. When they started playing the song 'Don't mess with my Tootoo,' we just went crazy. We loved watching him play. We would watch the bench to see when he was coming out. My son was 3 years old last year, and he loved Tootoo. For Christmas he got a hockey mask and during intermission he would practice his hockey in the hallway. He would always walk around telling us that he was Tootoo. When hockey season was over in April he had us cut out the numbers 22 and tape the numbers on the back of a shirt so when he played hockey at home he would have a #22 jersey on. He loved Tootoo!!! Tootoo will be missed in our household. He was a player that touched our heart. I am very glad that the Express has decided to retire his number. It just wouldn't be the same without Toots wearing #22." -- Melissa in Salem, Virginia

Terence Tootoo, 1980 - 2002

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of OurSports Central.


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