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Juneau embraces Nunavik challenge

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Every house starts with a sturdy foundation.

And someday in the future, it might be said a few rather important bricks in the building of the fledgling Nunavik Nordiks minor hockey program were put in place at the 2008 Bell Capital Cup.

It has been nothing short of a remarkable journey for the young major atom B team from Quebec’s far north and Joé Juneau, the former Ottawa Senators forward who has become the guiding hand for a project that is vital to the youth of a region facing many challenges.

Everything has been an eye-opener for the team, which endured an 18-hour trek from Kuujjuaq just to get to the Bell Capital Cup, then played their first tournament game on the wide, glistening ice at Scotiabank Place. For the majority of the players, it was the first time they’d laced up the skates for an organized game of hockey.

“That first game, what’s amazing about it, is that it was the first game of their life for most of the kids,” said Juneau, whose 13-year National Hockey League career included a stint with the Senators in 1999-2000. “So the (result), which was 10-0, was not surprising.

“But I felt that it was important for them to play at least one game (at Scotiabank Place). Even if they were not playing in the right (age) category, this was the only one that would give them a chance to play a game here. I think it was worth it.”

The Nordiks lost all three of their Bell Capital Cup games by a combined 29-2 count on the scoreboard. Clearly, there is much work to be done, but Juneau is in this for the long haul. It has become his passion since he and his girlfriend, Elsa, first made a personal trip to Nunavik – a Quebec region north of the 55th parallel – back in the spring of 2005.

“I fell in love with the territory,” said Juneau. “Then I got to meet some people and I guess I got attached right away to the culture.

“I had some free time and was thinking about getting back into hockey somehow. I was missing the game … I was not missing the NHL part of it, but I was missing the game of hockey. And I thought this was a great opportunity to get back into the game and give back to children.”

The challenge is huge, but Juneau has jumped into it with both feet. In September, he moved Elsa and his two young daughters with him from Quebec City to Kuujjuaq, a village of 2,200 residents. Now he pours much of his time and energy into community and recreational programs for the Kativik regional government.

“It’s quite a big challenge, to be honest with you,” said Juneau. “It’s something that will have to keep on happening for a lot of years. But I’m only 40 years old and I’ve got a lot of years in front of me. I’m in no rush, so let’s build this thing with patience and so far, in less than two years, already the results are amazing.”

Tournaments such as the Bell Capital Cup are a key part of the building process for a development program, which involves about 800 children from Nunavik’s 14 villages (eight of them were represented on the Nordiks team here).

“To have this select part of the program gives them a goal to reach, something to shoot for,” said Juneau. “Every year, there’s going to be 15 kids on an atom select team to participate in a tournament and maybe, in the years to come, it’s going to be this one. That’s something that still has to be decided.

“There’s also the peewee tournament in Quebec City, and every year there’s going to be 15 kids at the peewee level going to that tournament. The same thing at bantam. There’s about 50 kids every year that will go to play in a great tournament somewhere and represent Nunavik.”

More importantly, Juneau said, he hopes the program can help improve the quality of life for children in a region where crime, substance abuse and a high school dropout rate are constant threats.

“The main objective for the hockey program is to prevent criminality, to prevent school dropouts, to promote better nutrition … all those good things,” said Juneau. “Hockey is very far from being just a normal minor hockey structure or being a hockey school. Hockey is a tool to keep the kids in school and a tool to teach them as many things as possible in life.”

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