Terence Tootoo hockey tournament a success in return to ice

Rankin Inlet tournament played for first time since start of COVID-19 pandemic

The winning team of the A division of the Terence Tootoo Memorial Cup tournament was Jordin Tootoo’s team, Team Tootoo, pictured here. Tootoo is in the centre-right of the bottom row, with a patch over his right eye after he injured it in the semifinal. (Photo courtesy of Pujjuut Kusugak)

By David Lochead

The Terence Tootoo Memorial Cup isn’t just a hockey tournament, it’s a celebration.

And that was especially the case this year with its return after a three-year hiatus, according to player Pujjuut Kusugak.

“I think people were really ready to watch some of this hockey again,” he said.

“A lot of people were very happy.”

The tournament, hosted in Rankin Inlet, draws players from all over Nunavut. This year’s event ran March 15 to 19, marking a triumphant return to the ice after the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down in 2020.

It was renamed in 2017 to honour the memory of a young Rankin Inlet hockey player who died by suicide in 2002 at the age of 22.

His brother, Jordin Tootoo, went on to become the first Inuk to play in the National Hockey League. Jordin Tootoo is also a fixture at the tournament, and he played again this year.

On top of that, his team won the A division.

Team Tootoo was organized by Kusugak, who said Terence Tootoo was one of his best friends growing up. Kusugak is also close with Jordin Tootoo.

With too much happening in his life at the time, Jordin Tootoo asked Kusugak to build the team, Kusugak said.

Team Tootoo’s path to winning the tournament this year was not without challenges.

The semifinal match went to overtime before Team Tootoo beat Team Nunavut, which included players from the recent gold-medal-winning under-19 squad that represented Nunavut at the Arctic Winter Games.

“These young guys are going to dominate us if they stay together, stay healthy and keep working hard,” Kusugak said of the future for Team Nunavut’s players.

“They’re so fun to watch.”

Troy Aksalnik, who played for Team Todd, agreed.

“They were the highlight of the tournament,” he said of Team Nunavut.

Another challenge to Team Tootoo was an eye injury suffered by Jordin Tootoo from an accidental high stick in the semifinal game. He had to be taken to hospital immediately, then was flown to Winnipeg to see an eye specialist.

“It was really tough on us all,” Kusugak said of the incident.

“We really wanted to win it for him because he gave us so much leadership and confidence.”

Jordin Tootoo returned for the championship wearing a patch over his injured eye and while he couldn’t play, he supported his team.

The final game was a matchup between Team Tootoo and Team Niksik, with Team Tootoo prevailing 5-3.

Team Tootoo trailed 3-1 at one point, but tied it up 3-3 in the third period. Wendel Kaludjak put Team Tootoo ahead for good with a shot to the top corner of the net.

“Which was an absolute snipe,” Kusugak said of the game-winning goal.

Kusugak’s son, Qaritaq Kusugak-Clark, also played on Team Tootoo and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

On the B side, Team Todd prevailed over Eskimo Point by a score of 5-4.

“It was back and forth the whole game,” said Aksalnik, who played on Team Todd.

Kusugak said the crowds were fantastic throughout the tournament and Agnico Eagle Arena was packed for the games.

“It definitely pumps you up to want to play harder,” he said of the cheering crowd.

Outside of hosting the tournament, the Terence Tootoo Memorial Cup committee provides programming and funding for communities, said Aksalnik, who is a co-chair.

When the committee was organized, it set a goal to raise money to help kids who wanted to play hockey down south but needed funding, he said.

During the pandemic, the committee expanded its reach outside of hockey and now also donates to food hampers and toy drives throughout the year, Aksalnik said.

When COVID-19 prevented the Terence Tootoo Memorial Cup from being played, the committee donated more than $100,000 to communities over the three years.

“I think we’re extremely lucky to have that committee support Rankin and other communities that may need it,” Kusugak said.

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