February 14, 2017

Joé Juneau

(info about Joé Juneau)

Hockey in the Great North of Québec

Thomas Kieller

Joé Juneau: Playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

Great playmaker, Joé was a creative offensive player. The center liked to orchestrate the attacks with his teammates by good passes. He played with several teams in the National Hockey League such as the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals. Gifted in skating, the Canadian player represented his country at the Olympic Games in Albertville, France in 1992 where the team got the silver medal. But way before his professional career, he opted for an atypical choice by mixing school and sport together. After a few seasons in collegial AAA level, he took the road of university. While playing hockey, he got a diploma in aeronautical engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the state of New York. Besides, at the end of his professional hockey career, his university underlined his work by awarding him an honorary degree. But it’s from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that he received, in 2016, the prestigious Silver Anniversary Award given each year to a select group of six student-athletes across the United States. The hockey player who was born in Pont-Rouge, a village of 5,000 persons in his youth, can be proud of that because it honours his work as a university and professional player as well as his social contribution after his career as a hockey player.

The interview took place on February 8, 2017 at 12:25 in the Joé-Juneau recreational center in Pont-Rouge, Canada.

Prelude – Joé arrives at the arena in a relaxed manner and with a beaming smile. He wears a t-shirt of the New-England Patriots who won a few days earlier Super Bowl LI. We take place at a table where we start the discussion about his experience in the Great North of Québec and the development of a hockey program out there.

Experience in Nunavik

Thomas Kieller: Could you tell me when was the first time you went to Nunavik and why did you decide to start a hockey program?

Joé Juneau: Everything started in 2005 when I travelled out there, but it was not about hockey at all. It was a personal two-week trip that I was doing with my wife and one of our common friends. During this vacation, we had the opportunity to visit two Inuit communities. At that time, some people told me about the situation of the youth out there and I saw that reality. At this moment, I had the idea to come back to hockey after a two year retirement which I took in May 2004.

With the agreement of Inuit leaders, we started to put in place something for the next autumn. The first year was spent on doing the tour of all the communities of Nunavik. It was a pilot project and it was quite a bit exploratory. I realized that the only way I could put in place a hockey program was to go live there for a while in order to understand well the culture and to know better the people with whom we could develop that regional structure. You know that Nunavik covers a huge land. Besides, there are no roads which link the 14 small communities.

So, it was necessary to go live there. I had the chance to do it with my family. We took up residence in Kuujjuaq in 2007 and 2008, during the 2nd and 3rd year of the program. After those two years, it was not possible to stay there anymore because of the education of our children. Our two young girls had to go to elementary school. From that time on, I started again to travel quite a lot between Quebec City and Nunavik.

Nunavik (land area: 507,000 km2) – Inuit communities: Akulivik (population 483), Aupaluk (174), Inukjuak (1,335), Ivujivik (328), Kangiqsualujjuaq (738), Kangiqsujuaq (552), Kangirsuk (470), Kuujjuaraapik (593), Kuujjuaq (2,074), Puvirnituq (1,390), Quaqtaq (314), Salluit (1,185), Tasiujaq (247) and Umiujaq (373). Cree community: Whapmagoostui (778).

Thomas: Your wife went along easily with this idea?

Joé: Well yes, because it was possible to do so. Our daughters were young. So, we did it. It was a beautiful life experience.

Thomas: First, could you tell me how did you found the scenery in the tundra? Secondly, what about the Inuit culture?

Joé: Yes, the climate is different, but for me it’s a place where I’m very comfortable. When we look at the landscape it is quite different from Boston or the other cities that I played in the National Hockey League. It does not compare at all. I was always drawn by nature. Besides, I was at ease out there. The two years that I lived in Kuujjuaq were superb ones.

I don’t say that it was easy all the time. To the contrary, I had to work crazy hours. I was at the arena often in the morning at 5 o’clock and I was leaving late, sometimes at 8 o’clock at night. For my wife, she had to do all the work and school at home for our two daughters. So, it was not always obvious, but I think those years allowed us to develop the program. Without my presence in Nunavik as a citizen, we could not have made the progress like we did.

Thomas: I will get straight to the point. I will like to know if it is difficult to live in a place like that where it is cold and a bit cut off from the world.

Joé: Well no! You simply have to adjust to it. You have to go out with a warm coat and to put on appropriate clothes. There are some people who survived there for 3,000 years. With modern clothes and equipment, there are no reasons to be unable to get through that. I did not have any problem on that matter. One must simply adjust and adapt himself to the situation.

Thomas: In the several communities, are there a lot of physical activities to do for the youth and for adults?

Joé: There are not a lot of options, but I can say the situation has improved on that matter since I started to work in Nunavik. There was almost nothing to do. When I was visiting different communities, some people were telling me that our youth needs to be occupied and they also need to be in a structure. Moreover, I remember when I was going into arenas or community centers, I could see a lot of cans and bags of chips on the floor. I remember also that when I was going to the arena really early and the day before there was a bingo session everything was a mess. You can understand that there was a lot to do.

I believe that the situation is better. Of course, it is not perfect. If we had more help and participation of the organizations in place, it would be most likely better. Unfortunately, the people are not working all together and the organizations which should help do not.

Thomas: I would like to know if the Inuits have a great appreciation of hockey?

Joé (says with enthusiasm): If the program has that kind of success, the reason is that hockey is the sport of choice for the youth. Indeed, they see that on television, but it’s not only about that. It is a sport that kids and adults like to practice and it goes as well for men and women.

Hockey program for the youth

Thomas: You have put in place the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program (NYHDP) in 2006. Could you tell me what are the main objectives and sub-objectives of the program?

Joé: It is a community and a social program like the ones called hockey-school that we have here. The word school is important. In a way, it’s the school of life with the teaching of values, life-skills, respect, self-esteem, etc. I like to work this way.

The program is financed for the purpose of preventing criminality. It is proven in several studies that when the youth are busy in something it is beneficial for society instead of hanging out in the streets doing stupid things.

Sport is much like life. There are some rules to follow, you have to work as a team and you must respect your environment. In order to have some success in sport like in life, you must follow a path. If you want to win, you will have to work with your teammates. With effort, perseverance and concentration in what you do, you can have some success. The message for these kids is that if you do all this, you will see some progress year after year and success will follow.

For me, it’s not only a hockey program and it’s not a sport-study program for the elite. It is a community and a social program in a region where there is no minor hockey, no teams and no leagues. There is none of that. So, it is a community and a social program.

Thomas: There is no league?

Joé: There cannot be a league. There are villages where the population of students is around 40. How can you form a team? At the beginning, there were no trainers. This was another problem that we had to overcome. How do you develop coaches? It’s quite simple, it requires patience. In order to develop trainers, you must have young ones in a structure for several years where they will grow up playing minor hockey. When they will be older and when it will be their time, they will become trainers. At the start, I have been asked to teach coaches who were already adults, but who never had the chance to benefit of such a structure. It was completely impossible to do. We tried! But it did not work. Knowledge and skills were not there. However, by being patient and by developing the youth, we can see some results. They became adults and some of them have stayed with us in the program as young hockey trainers.

Thomas: Are the communities involved in the program?

Joé: It is not all the communities who went along. We tried and we will still try. It depends on different situations. For example in Kuujjuaq, I was there for many years in order to put in place a good local structure. When I left to develop elsewhere other aspects of the program, the village hired a person from Montreal who decided to follow his way instead of following the same model.

Of course, there are a lot of young ones who play. However, when young players from Kuujjuaq come to the selection camps that we organized, they are behind the other ones. The reason is simple because what they are taught on the ice is not done the same way that the program prescribed it. We see some young ones with weak basic techniques. There are some 16-year-old players who have difficulty to pivot on both sides. In a good program, you will not see that. Unfortunately, Kuujjuaq has decided to follow this way. We have seen this in other villages where there are some people who come from the south and they try to make their mark. Instead of following a regional program, they will just follow their own mind and put in place their own things. It’s one of the difficulties.

There is also a problem of turnover. In some villages, we saw one or some persons who invested themselves in the leisure of the community and who have put in place the program in a superb way. However, when those people leave, there work falls down. So, there are ups and downs. Over the years, I think there are six or eight villages which are able to put in practice the program.

Thomas: Did you see a big implication of the youth in the program over the years among girls and boys?

Joé: Well yes, during the first two years, we did the tour on Nunavik. We went in all the communities. In the schools, we gave inscription forms to the students and we had around 1,200 inscriptions. There is an interest. But was it possible to have 1,200 youth in the program? No, it was not. There were no arena managers in the villages and we had to train coaches. It was a big problem. Those 1,200 kids did not have the equipment or parents could not afford to buy them one. In the program, we have 500 or 600 youth year after year.

Joé Juneau: Coach in Nunavik, Canada.

Thomas: Concerning the kids who take part in the program, did you see an improvement in their physical conditioning?

Joé: Yes, it has been proven in the study “Inuit youth involvement in a competitive ice hockey program: improvements in aerobic capacity, but important gender difference” from the University of Ottawa in 2015. In this publication, it’s described in a precise manner. There is a lot of progress made by the youth concerning their physical conditioning. It is obvious that if you participate in such a program it cannot be harmful.

Thomas: The physical aspect is truly important, but sports practice brings a lot more. Was there some improvement concerning their behaviour?

Joé: Yes, there are so much things happening on the field concerning this matter. Unfortunately, there are some elected representatives in Nunavik who don’t believe the program can prevent crime. It is sad because we can see wonderful results. Some people close their eyes or refuse to believe in it or simply they don’t believe in it. Ultimately, there will be a lot of kids who will suffer because of this lack of support.

Thomas: We know the benefits of practicing physical activities. There is another aspect that one must consider and it is nutrition. How is it out there concerning this matter?

Joé: Concerning nutrition, they have their own typical food: caribou meat, goose, partridge, beluga, etc. From this side, they have the chance to eat well.

However, in grocery stores it is not so good. There are a lot of frozen and prepared food, chips and other less nutritive things. We worked hard on this point. We are telling the kids that if they want to perform in the sport that they practice, they must eat accordingly. Nevertheless, in a way, there are victims of their reality. It remains that we deliver the message. Besides, there are some beautiful stories about parents who surprised us. They told us that the effect that we had on their youth had also an effect on them, on their way of living and the way they feed themselves. There are parents who stop smoking and others who stop drinking. It's something. I was watching a documentary by Radio-Canada about the program where a mother explained that her boy had a big impact on her concerning the good decisions to make for her and her family. She stopped smoking, drinking while feeding better her family. Her testimony is heartrending.

Thomas: Do you see some pride in the community regarding the youth participating in the program?

Joé (says with passion): Oh yes, of course! Besides, we can see them in these pictures. I have some here if you want to look at the faces of those kids. This is the pee-wee team of Nunavik who won the provincial tournament last Sunday in Saint-Romuald. And on this picture, the players in white play in the batam level and they won two weeks earlier the provincial tournament, but this one in Val-Bélair. Those kids are in a program and a structure where we ask them to be on time, to give the necessary effort and to help each other. In what kind of structure other than this one they can be in? There is none! I’m going to Nunavik over 11 years. Parents are telling us there is nothing like this.

The kids who are in the program wake up in the morning in order to be on the ice at 8:30. Excuse-me but the rest of the village is asleep. Those kids are on the ice and they work. They had a good breakfast and they have nourished themselves well. They will practice twice per day for nine days to finally be able to go participate in a tournament. At that moment, if you want to succeed, you have to do it as a team and by following the knowledge given in the preparatory camp.

In the end, in spite of the fact that there is no minor hockey, the kids are able to compete with the teams who trained since August. You know, we arrived with a bunch of youth from Nunavik who are together since a week and a half and we beat everybody. There is some pride. They will grow from this. It’s magical. There is also the self esteem which is incredible. Again, if they don’t have this possibility, where in their life will they find this self esteem? We cannot be surprised that there is that much suicide there.

One of the messages that we say in the program is to never give up. For example, the pee-wee team of Nuvavik that I showed you earlier in a picture, they were trailing after two periods by the score of 2 to 0. They did not give up. They tied the game and they won the tournament in overtime. This is a message which will stick in their mind for the rest of their life. At one point, when they will be in a difficult situation, they will remember to never give up rather than put a rope around their neck… That is the difference that the program does for hundreds of kids each year.

Unfortunately, there are some elected representatives who do not see this way. We have to continue to fight, that’s simple. From the start, I have set my heart in the program for the kids. I’m still there for the same reasons, because I saw what it can bring. I still want to help the youth with this beautiful program.

Thomas: What should be improved in the program? Also, what should be done to help increase physical activities for the youth in Nunavik?

Joé: There must be a better participation of numerous persons and organizations. If the school boards do not participate, it is negative. If the government officials and the state employees do not put shoulder to the wheel, we have a problem. There are several things, but for me if we want to improve the situation, the bodies in place have to help us.

We have to form better the recreational coordinators and arena mangers in order that the arenas are managed better and to avoid important system breakdowns. Year after year, the equipment in the arenas breaks and are not well supervised. There is also the problem of turnover.

You know that I’m an ice hockey professional. It’s my life. My skills are in that domain. I can see when it is not working well. In the end, what we want is that kids have a good service.

Last words

Thomas: Are you still happy to share your passion and your hockey knowledge with the youth?

Joé: Oh yes, you can without doubt see it in my responses. I will be 50 years old next winter and it is obvious that I’m really passionate to be involved in hockey. I do not do it anymore as a player but rather as a coach by using sport to teach on different levels and aspects of life. The strength of sport is that you can use it to form individuals. It is not only about forming athletes and hockey players. When sport is applied with an educational component, it can have an incredible impact on society. It is a powerful tool for community development.

We can see this in Pont-Rouge where I grew up. When you enter into the arena, you know that this is the heart of the village. The arena where we are currently in is approximately 50 years old. My uncle worked here for 30 years as manager and recreational coordinator. People live in Pont-Rouge because of the possibilities to do recreational activities. We must invest in that domain because it is worth it. In the same way, we avoid some eventual problems. It is better to inject money right now rather than to wait that everything goes wrong and to repair it after.

Thomas: With the Nunavik example, there are no frontiers to hockey and to sport.

Joé: Yes indeed. We can see this in the United States where hockey is spreading in a wonderful way. And like you say, there are no frontiers. We could do it everywhere. One must simply have the infrastructures. In places where this sport is practiced, it brings a lot to the community and the society.

Thomas: Thanks Joé for this interview.

Joé: Thanks to you.