A Northern Light

Feb. 18, 2008
Feb. 18, 2008

Table of Contents
Feb. 18, 2008

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
Dan Patrick

A Northern Light

In an Inuit region of the Canadian subarctic, former NHL player (and trained rocket scientist) Joé Juneau is changing the world ... one slap shot at a time

IF THE GOAL of the modern executive is a corner office with a view of the water, Joé Juneau is first-team all-FORTUNE. His office in the Kuujjuaq Forum, with its panorama of the village and the broad Koksoak River, offers a glimpse of the timeless and the temporary. Hunkered against the uncompromising elements of the stark and stunning Canadian subarctic, prefab Kuujjuaq, a town of 2,100 and the metropolis of the 14 villages dotted onto northern Quebec's vast Nunavik region, looks as though it could be packed up and carted off in half a day's work.

This is an article from the Feb. 18, 2008 issue

Juneau, who played 12 seasons in the NHL, has brought grassroots hockey to a place where there are no grass roots. His embryonic Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program gets 180 boys and girls between the ages of five and 16—most of them Inuit, some white—skating, passing, stickhandling and shooting at the Forum, a rink that seats 200 and doubles as a community center. Juneau is not merely teaching hockey to these children, some of whom recently learned to skate by pushing chairs on ice. He is also proselytizing, selling the therapeutic power of pucks as a way to education, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to discern the possibilities of such a program in an area where alcoholism rates are critically high, temperatures are frostbite low and the social safety net often sags under the weight of communities in crisis. Yet the man who designed the program is precisely that. Before beginning a career in which he won an Olympic silver medal in 1992, scored 102 points as a Boston Bruins rookie in 1992--93 and went to Stanley Cup finals with the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres, Juneau, from Pont-Rouge, Que., earned a degree in aeronautical engineering in just three years from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He did it despite studying in a language that he could not speak when he started at the university.

"I always put my RPI degree ahead of what I did in the NHL," says Juneau, who scored 156 goals before retiring in 2004. "But I think this program here in Nunavik is the biggest accomplishment of my life."

Juneau hardly has the social conscience or do-good market cornered among athletes, but his story might be the most moving: He has moved 800 miles north from his opulent home outside Quebec City to Kuujjuaq (pronounced KOO-joo-ack), where he has settled into a modest four-bedroom house with his companion, Elsa Moreau, and their two young daughters. The first-generation rink rats who gambol in the Kuujjuaq Forum are not simply his pupils, not merely statistics in a Band-Aid social experiment. They are also his neighbors. In other words this isn't exactly a charity golf tournament Juneau is staging.

Looking out from his office window on a shimmering October morning last year, as the tamarack trees burned orange and a dusting of snow from the previous night slowly melted, Juneau was asked whether he viewed the village laid out before him as beautiful or ugly. "Beautiful but dirty and disorganized," he replied. A week later, dissatisfied with that response, Juneau sent this e-mail.

After thinking about it, the answer is obvious to me. When I look towards town, I see where the Inuit now have to live. And when I look at the wide open [spaces] around the village, I see where they really belong, what they love, and what the adults need to be happy in their life.... The kids are growing up pretty much like kids from the South [of Canada]. They have 100 channels on TV, the Internet, computer games. None of that was here 10 years ago. The pace that the people are asked to adjust at might be too fast. The reality is 50 years ago, some of the Inuit were still being born in igloos.

This is the big gap that is represented as we look out my window: the land and the village, the nomad and the sedentary, the Inuit culture and the white culture, the past and the present, the physical survival (finding food and shelter at -50 Celsius [-58° Fahrenheit]) and now the mental survival (learning how they fit in this new world while at the same time fighting to keep their culture intact)....

This is indeed a chasm, like the one that sometimes exists between being merely an elite athlete and being a complete human being.

IN THE hockey fraternity, Juneau was always considered a freak. He played drums and read books and pondered the environment at a time when going green in the NHL meant a trip to Hartford to play the Whalers. The son of a forest ranger, he had a love of space that went beyond the 200-by-85-foot parameters of the rink and some of the narrow thinking that envelops the game. "I'm not saying Joé's weird," says Montreal defenseman Patrice Brisebois, a friend and former teammate, "but he always liked doing things that were different." Juneau took the road less traveled. Now he works at the 58th parallel, in a place where there are no roads other than the streets of Kuujjuaq. Except one. Curling past the Forum atop the hill, this road snakes by the occasional home, curls past a dump filled with rusting Ski-Doos and other detritus of northern life, meanders near patches of tamaracks and then, after 15 miles, dead-ends. Just like that. The locals refer to it as The Road to Nowhere, which is where a life here can end if you are not careful.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in Nunavik. According to Statistics Canada, 22% of the people who died there between 2000 and 2002 did so at their own hands. That galling figure helps explain why, while the average life span for a Canadian man or woman is 79.5, for an Inuit it is 66.9. An April 2007 provincial report on youth-protection services in Nunavik concluded that alcohol, drug addiction and suicide "have become problems of alarming proportions in all age groups. Poverty adds to the difficulty of the situation, and children are often the first victims. Many children live in conditions that are quite simply unsuited to their need for protection and security. A large number of children are physically, psychologically and sexually mistreated."

Juneau first visited Nunavik on a caribou-hunting trip in the summer of 2004. On a return trip in the spring of '06 he saw that a tin-roofed rink in Kangiqsualujjuaq, northeast of Kuujjuaq, was virtually deserted while Inuit children played in the street without supervision. Within weeks Juneau had presented a plan for his hockey program to the Inuit-run Makivik Corporation, part of the latticework of agencies that make one of the least-populated areas in North America one of the most heavily regulated. The program set forth 10 objectives, which included educational tie-ins, crime prevention, the development of local coaches who could meet standards set by the Quebec Ice Hockey Federation, nutritional instruction and community volunteerism.

"We took him up on it right away," Makivik Corporation president Pita Aatami says. "We'd talked about it ourselves, had hired people, but it was never very well run, very well structured, until we hired Joé. We had an arena, but the kids weren't playing hockey. We want our kids to have a healthier lifestyle. There is much more alcohol and different drugs coming to the north. What he designed wasn't a hockey program but really a social program."

With an initial budget of $1 million from the Makivik Corporation and the Kativik Regional Government, Juneau began work in the fall of 2006. He would spend one or two weeks a month in Nunavik, usually staying in Kuujjuaq but also hopscotching by plane among the villages. The program began to blossom in the rocky soil—the 180 participants represent a third of the eligible children in Kuujjuaq—but the now 40-year-old Juneau was not satisfied. "Every time I left here and went home, I found myself the next morning wishing I was here to continue this," he says. "There's so much to be done. You disconnect for two or three weeks, you lose the continuity. I had a decision. Either I could keep doing it this way and hope for the best, or I could take the next step: moving here."

Elsa Moreau, who has lived with Juneau as his partner for 10 years, made the decision easy. "If he were here to open a business or something, I would have said no. But he's investing in a mission, something bigger than himself. This is a grand projet humain," she says in French, at the kitchen table in the home she and Juneau share. The house had been used by policemen who rotate through the region until it was renovated for Juneau's family. Ophélie, 7, and Hélo√Øse, 6, each have their own small bedroom. Another has been turned into an arts-and-crafts room for the girls, who are homeschooled in the mornings and attend French immersion classes at the local grammar school in the afternoon. Their father runs them to school and hockey practices in a black Jeep supplied by the Kuujjuaq recreation department. He is paid $4,000 a week for spending 36 weeks in Nunavik. If the salary, about one quarter of the current program budget, seems substantial, consider that the cost of living in Kuujjuaq is almost 60% higher than in the southern part of the province. The salary is also a fourteenth of what he earned in his final NHL season.

"We all find it unusual that he's here," says Mary Aitchison, 55, assistant director general of the Kativik School Board and one of the village elders. Her son Kyle, 12, is in the hockey program. "The children know he played for the Montreal Canadiens, and that makes a real difference. The modeling is what's working here. I don't know anything about hockey, but I support this because I see its effect on my little boy. The condition for playing is he has to do well at school, so it's giving him that focus and extra energy."

There are, in fact, three conditions for children who want to stay in the program, wear the uniforms and maybe make the travel team that will play in the international peewee tournament that begins this week in Quebec City. They are not judged on schoolwork, per se, but on attendance, behavior and effort. On Friday afternoon, teachers at the grammar and high school fill out forms assessing each student in these three categories. Juneau tabulates and monitors. (He is often on the ice three hours a day—organizing drills that are sometimes as elementary as having younger children skate to center ice and belly flop, acclimating them to falling—but he seems to spend triple that time in meetings and doing paperwork.) Early in the season Juneau barred nine children for a week. The following week all had improved their comportment enough to be reinstated. Says Dallacy Suppa, whose 12-year-old son, Collin, is in the program, "[Collin's] effort has been great since [the program started]. He helps me a lot at home with cleaning, and with his little brother and sisters. He never complains about homework anymore. I'm glad this program came up north."

Apparently a hockey stick can be a wonderful carrot.

IF JUNEAU is teaching Nunavik about hockey, the north is teaching Juneau to pick his battles. He might be able to take on the vending machine supplier at the Kuujjuaq Forum—the junk food has been removed—but he takes on Mother Nature at his peril. In early September he flew to Kangiqsujuaq to supervise the hockey program for a week that turned out to be, in his word, a "disaster." For the villagers of Kangiqsujuaq, the Canada and snow geese that were flying out on their autumnal migration were of far more interest than Juneau's flying in to run his hockey program. According to Statistics Canada, 98% of Inuit households in Nunavik hunt and fish for sustenance. For the Inuit, going out to shoot geese is like going to the A&P.

Juneau was sitting in Pita Aatami's office at Makivik Corporation last autumn when Aatami received a phone call that the migrating George River caribou herd was passing through the Manitou Gorge, about 50 miles upriver from the village. In an instant Aatami's mood changed, from official to almost giddy. He canceled a meeting for that evening with village mayors who had flown in to Kuujjuaq.

For the freezers, the uncommonly late migration of the herd was a belated blessing. For the hockey program, it was a reminder that sports are not really life and death. (The day after Juneau's meeting with Aatami, on a whiteboard at the high school that lists absentees and their excuses, the word "hunting" was written next to the name of one child.)

As word of the caribou spread, powerboats began taking off into the Koksoak River, a small flotilla that would travel three hours to where the river splits into the Larch and the Kaniapiskau. Caribou were everywhere, bounding near the banks of the river or swimming between shores. There were also hundreds of carcasses; at least 300 caribou drowned while trying to traverse the roiling Limestone Falls.

Juneau temporarily lost his arena manager, Jason Aitchison, another of Mary Aitchison's sons, who left that day and would camp out and continue to hunt until he had shot and skinned nine caribou, all that his small boat could handle. Juneau's chief referee also bolted for the hunt. When Juneau took to the ice late that afternoon, he was amazed to discover that one of his hockey assistants, Randy Gordon, 19, hadn't gone with his father upriver.

"I told you I'd be here at practice," Randy said, "so I was." Juneau rewarded Gordon, who once had a Junior A tryout, with a trip to Manitou Gorge the next morning to join in the hunting. Randy says he has shot maybe 50 caribou in his life. Last year he bagged his first beluga, with a harpoon. (The Hartford Whalers might be history but not the Inuit whalers.)

Randy is part of a long tradition of men who live off the land, and Juneau is grooming him to be part of what might become a new tradition, the hockey program in Nunavik. Juneau originally agreed to run it for two years, then extended the agreement for another two after the initial season. But he won't live in the north forever. Indeed, if some schooling issues for his daughters are not resolved, he might go back to commuting to Nunavik for the final two years. "Every chance I get," Juneau says, "I tell the people here that this is their program, not mine."

THIS MIGHT be Juneau's most distinctive accomplishment in an uncommon life, but really, how many lives in Nunavik will change? Can a harsh and haunting landscape be remade through sport? And in the circular world of the Inuit, can a vulcanized rubber disk find its place?

There's goodwill for the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program at the moment. The schools are supportive. Inuit parents have been uncharacteristically attentive. ("I heard one parent who's never been involved before say, 'Well, I guess if Juneau can coach, I can too,'" says Joanne Barrett, a 10th-grade English teacher at the local Jaanimmarik school.) And more money will be coming. During the next three years the provincial government will underwrite 80% of the $30 million needed to renovate the sports facilities throughout Nunavik. With the exception of the Kuujjuaq Forum, which opened in late 1991, the others are basically glorified barns.

The answers to the questions will be glacially slow in coming, as life used to be in Nunavik. And when they do arrive, a generation or more from now, they are likely to be recorded not in the pages of a sports magazine but by Statistics Canada number crunchers and provincial social workers.

Right now, it is enough that The Road to Nowhere is paved with good intentions. "The thing with Joé is that he has confidence in himself to do anything," Moreau says on that glistening autumn afternoon, before the hard cold settles on Kuujjuaq. "He can't understand why people don't try things or why they get easily demoralized. He doesn't have the same parameters of life. For him, the sky's the limit."

"Drug addiction and suicide have become problems OF ALARMING PROPORTIONS," said a youth-protection report on Nunavik.
Juneau, says Moreau, is "INVESTING IN A MISSION."
PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyBIGGER THINGS Juneau, who went to the finals with the Capitals in 1998 (top), believes his youth program in Nunavik is his greatest accomplishment.PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyFUNDAMENTAL CHANGES Juneau is a coach and mentor to 180 children, many of whom enter his program only able to skate while pushing a chair. To reap the pleasures of learning such basic drills as the center-ice belly flop, the kids need to stay out of trouble in school. And they do.FOUR PHOTOSPhotographs by Simon Bruty[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyWORK-LIFE BALANCE Away from the rink and his office duties, Juneau learns about Inuit culture, including the reliance on the caribou.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Simon Bruty[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutySETTLING IN Juneau, together with Moreau and daughters Hélo√Øse (red pants) and Ophélie, live modestly among Inuit neighbors.PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty[See caption above]