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Hockey Is For Everyone

Joe Juneau growing hockey in Quebec's Arctic region

Retired NHL player using sport to benefit children of Nunavik region

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

Joe Juneau played 828 NHL games during 13 seasons with six teams, but his biggest impact in hockey may have come after his playing days were finished.

That's saying something for a player who had 102 points (32 goals, 70 assists) as a rookie with the Boston Bruins in 1992-93, tying Juneau with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby for the seventh-most productive rookie season in NHL history, one spot ahead of Mario Lemieux.

In 2006, two years after his final season with the Montreal Canadiens in 2003-04, Juneau took a trip to Nunavik in the Arctic region of Quebec. It changed his life and, eventually, the lives of many more people.

What he saw on that initial visit was Inuit children playing hockey in the streets of Kuujjuaq, the regional capital; sometimes in the middle of the night, with little to no access to organized hockey on ice.

In the Arctic.

So Juneau decided to do something about it, making him the personification of the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone campaign, which has run throughout February and uses the game of hockey, and the League's global influence, to drive positive social change and foster inclusive communities.

A year later, the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program (NYHDP) was born.

"It was the questions that I asked and the answers that I received," Juneau said of his motivation to get involved. "It was just kids in the streets playing street hockey, often late at night, and the arenas being mismanaged and closed. So that raised a lot of questions.

"I went to the village of Kangiqsualujjuaq and visited a school during my time there. The principal joked that I should come more often because he'd never seen so many kids in school. It just made me realize right away that if kids would come to school just to see me, it shows that hockey was a way to get kids to school."

Juneau moved his family, wife Elsa and two daughters, to the region in 2006 for two years, living there year-round, to get the NYHDP off the ground in 2007.

Right from the beginning, Juneau was asked to coach a team that had been traveling to play in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament, thereby creating a competitive component of the program to complement the recreational program meant to get kids on the ice and active.

In the program's second year, select teams, drawing from the 14 villages in the region, were added at the Bantam and Atom levels. By the fourth year, the program had select teams in every age group, adding a select program for girls shortly thereafter.

"Playing in the select program became a major incentive for all the kids in Nunavik," Juneau said. "It was a dream."

The program is now in its 11th year and Juneau estimates approximately 2,000 kids have participated in the select and recreational portion of the program, with more than 300 going through the select program and winning 10 provincial tournaments during the past four years.

That's in addition to all the children who have received ice time and a chance to play recreational hockey as a result of the arena upgrades made with the public funds the program received.

In a region with 12,000 residents, that is a massive number.

The NYHDP, at least in the eyes of Juneau, was a success.

But earlier this month, the program's funding was up for renewal and the regional government decided to cut the select-team portion of the program and only maintain the recreational portion of it, cutting a little more than 30 percent of the $2.1 million budget for the initiative.

The decision was based largely on an evaluation of the program done by a private firm, commissioned by the regional government. The firm found, generally, that the select-team program had strong benefits but did not impact enough children, and the funding it required rendered the community-based recreational component less effective when it came to the core values of the program's mandate, including the promotion of education and the reduction of crime.

Juneau couldn't disagree more.

To him, the possibility of playing for a select team keeps kids focused on that goal, and forces them to stay in school and behave outside of school because the select program demands it.

"This is what hurts the most because this is really leadership development," Juneau said. "If you run the program with a strong educational component, based on values and teaching life skills, this is an important part of crime prevention."

Though the program as a whole is not dead as the recreational component remains intact. And, Juneau will continue to fight to make sure the select component lives on in some other form nexst season, hoping to prove its benefits by having seen kids graduate from that side of the program and going on to great things using the the lessons and discipline learned through the NYHDP.

"Right now we have to finish the year," Juneau said. "Hopefully we can do some more great things and that will convince people that this side of the program is worth saving."

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