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Former NHLer Joe Juneau wanted to bring hockey to the youth of remote Nunavik. Now, his select team is being cancelled. Roy MacGregor reports on what the program meant to the community on, and off, the ice.

Nunavik Nordiks coach Joe Juneau talks to his players in the dressing room before a game March 24, 2017 in Ottawa. DAVE CHAN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

There is something wrong with this picture.

The selfies that the coaches and players are taking show ecstasy – the triumphant 4-3 victory of the Nunavik Nordiks over the Sudbury Stars to win the midget women's hockey championship. They kiss and raise high the trophy, hug and scream at each other, skate about the rink holding out their gold medals for the few dozen fans to applaud.

Their coach, former NHL star Joé Juneau, stands on the bench of the suburban Ottawa rink, staring out with tears forming in his eyes – but not tears of happiness.

In the team dressing room, moments later, the championship team will break down into open sobbing.

Team captain Siqua Munick, usually the definition of bubbly, is so distraught she can only hide her face in her hands. The same for assistant captain Malina Berthe, who cannot even catch her breath the crying is so intense. They are not tears of happiness.

Once dressed, Berthe, whose father Matthew serves as assistant coach, will take to social media. She will post photographs of the triumphant team, the last time it will play together.

"The program meant everything to me!" the 17-year-old will type into her mobile phone. "I'm SO ANGRY, sad and heartbroken that it had to stop… I wanted my little brothers to experience this amazing program. I wouldn't be who I am today if it wasn't for this program. It taught me many things about hockey, perseverance, respect, how to control myself in certain situations, but most of all through this program I gained a lot of confidence. To the person who made that stupid report saying the program only focuses on winning tournaments … I hate you. You never got to experience what I experienced!"

Their coach lets them cry for a while. He cannot speak himself. After a long pause and several difficult swallows, he finds his voice.

"The plane is waiting," he tells them. "We will have three hours of special time together – something that is going to stay with you the rest of your lives."

Members of the Nunavik Nordiks get ready to take the ice March 24, 2017 in Ottawa.

'What could I do with them on the ice?'

Joé Juneau was different as a hockey player – very different. He was born in Pont-Rouge, Que., and grew up unilingual, a happy kid who was never so content as when he was deep in the woods. He was so gifted in the sport of hockey, however, and so bright in school, that he was wooed in his teenage years and soon headed off to play for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. That he would excel in sport was never in doubt: twice he was selected an All-American. How he would do in school was the question. He failed his first two exams. But he learned English so quickly, and studied so hard, that he ended up graduating in three years rather than the usual four. We are not talking bird courses here – his degree is in aeronautical engineering; he once built an airplane with his father.

Drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1988, he told team management he wanted to be paid full salary even if he was sent to the minors – and if they didn't like it, he would go and play in Switzerland. "Then he'll have to learn to yodel," Boston general manager Harry Sinden responded. Instead, Juneau joined the Canadian Olympic team, winning a silver medal at the 1992 Albertville Winter Games and leading the tournament in scoring.

Once he did join the NHL, he lasted 13 seasons, mostly with Boston, the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens. His 70 assists as a Bruins rookie are still an NHL record for a left winger.

His hockey career came to an end in 2004. Two years later, he and his wife, Elsa, joined two friends on a trip north into the Nunavik area of Quebec's Far North, a vast swath of tundra with 14 Inuit communities and a total population of around 13,000.

As they travelled about the small villages, Juneau could not help but note there was little to no structure for the children. They were up all hours of the day, often playing street hockey well beyond midnight.

In the village of Kangiqsualujjuaq he met with Mark Brazeau, the vice-principal of Ulluriaq School, who suggested he come to school the following day and speak to the youngsters.

"I always carried hockey cards with me to autograph," Juneau says, "so I figured that might interest them. They mentioned on the local radio that I'd be there and when I got there it was just crazy. The vice-principal says to me, 'You should come here more often.' I asked him why. 'Because this is the first time all year that we have had all our students at school.' "

Flying back to their home near Quebec City, Juneau talked over his fast-blossoming idea with Elsa. "If a former player can have that much effect on youth just by showing up at their school," he wondered, "what could I do with them on the ice?"

And within months was born the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program (NYHDP). Makivik Corporation, which oversees funding to the communities through a 1975 land claim settlement, embraced the program as a youth crime-prevention initiative. It was agreed that Juneau would run the program and be paid $100 an hour. He and Elsa and their two young daughters moved to Kuujjuaq, the largest community in Nunavik (population: 2,400), and spent two years there while the program was set up and running; they later returned to their home in Saint-Raymond, while Juneau continued to run the program and coached the select teams.

Everything costs more in the north, and throw in air travel for the select teams and the expenses soar. The program this year cost $2.2-million. For the 440 boys and girls (aged 17 and under) who are involved, this works out to roughly $5,000 a player. For the 80 players chosen for the select teams, the cost of air travel, accommodation, meals and equipment takes that figure to $15,000 a child. (The majority of the players stay in their home villages playing house league, and sometimes play against other teams from other villages. The select teams attend week-long training camps before heading south to play in occasional tournaments.)

As in any minor-hockey system, there had been grumblings – parents unhappy their child wasn't selected, parents not wanting their children to miss school for tournaments, jealousy that Juneau's annual pay could sometimes top $200,000 – but there had also been high praise. In 2016 Juneau's unique program was given the YMCA Peace Medal for its success in "motivating young people to surpass themselves on the ice and in the classroom."

Then, on Feb. 10, the program funding was slashed nearly in half. There would be no more select teams travelling to southern tournaments.

The Nunavik Nordiks, still wearing their gold medals from the Ottawa tournament, made their way home from what will likely be their final tournament "down south."

When Malina Berthe landed back in Kangiqsujuaq, where she is going to school, the community held a parade for her and teammate Sarah Jaaka. The girls wore their gold medals and stood on top of the fire truck as it rolled past the cheering townsfolk, siren blasting.

They were too late, however, to save anything.

Nunavik Nordiks coach Joe Juneau talks to his players during a game March 24, 2017 in Ottawa.

'The whole thing doesn't make sense'

"I saw it coming," Juneau says.

With the program 10 years old, a decision was taken last year to evaluate it and, if necessary, make some decisions on the future. Makivik hired Goss Gilroy Inc., an Ottawa management-consultant firm, to undertake a comprehensive study. The company travelled the region, interviewed more than 140 people in Nunavik, praised the value of minor hockey in the communities but concluded: "While an indirect impact on crime prevention is possible within the Northern Youth Hockey Development Program, there is no evidence to support that it does have these results."

The study referred to police statistics that showed physical and sexual assaults had gone up in the region over the past five years. There are, of course, no statistics available for crimes not committed by children aged 5 to 17, the target group of Juneau's program.

"I knew that the evaluation was coming and the decision was not surprising to me," Juneau says. "But the whole thing doesn't make sense. Am I a dreamer – or is this really what people feel and see?"

Juneau says he personally "took it hard," but he adds that "I have to accept the decision – it's their money. But I have seen this work. I've seen the leadership skills they develop. I know it's very expensive – we have to bring them to the camps, we have to fly to the tournaments, feed them, bus them – but it's worth it.

"Some of the [ Makivik] leaders see it as me being hard on their decision. It's not that. I have to accept their decision. What I cannot accept is an evaluation report that disproves what we have done. We cannot accept that. It's not what we see."

Danielle Demers certainly agrees. For the past decade the retired teacher has served as the program's pedagogical co-ordinator. She is particularly passionate about the select girls team, which she says has developed critical values such as commitment, discipline and self-esteem that are simply immeasurable. On the championship team that played in Ottawa, for example, three of the 15 girls have been dealing with the effects of youth suicide, either having attempted it themselves or having a sibling who killed him or herself. One of the players was even taken out of hospital rehabilitation so she could join the team where she is happiest and feels she belongs.

"It's not just about girl athletes," says Demers, who has spent a quarter-century working in the Far North. "It's about life skills and bonding. It's about learning about the importance of respect and perseverance."

Demers says she and the coaches are "friendly but strict." The players have to go to bed at a certain time, eat breakfast together, show respect for the people they encounter. "They are so grateful, so respectful. They behave so well," Demers says. "Everywhere we go we get compliments – 'Your girls are so good and polite.' "This program gives them structure. We tell them to 'Do your best at all times' and 'Never give up.' At first it might seem we are a bit hard on them, but they get used to it and they like it."

Members of the Nunavik Nordiks take part in a team bonding exercise.

Both Demers and Juneau say the team jackets – a small expense – bring enormous value to the program. "It's a great inspiration," Demers says. "To be part of the Nunavik Nordiks, to wear that jacket, it has great impact. Other kids see our teams wearing their jackets so proudly all over Nunavik and it inspires them.

"And our players know they have a responsibility when they wear that jacket. They represent Nunavik when they go about. There's a sense of the way you have to behave when you wear that jacket."

Demers also argues that the program has an enormous benefit to those young Canadians who play against the Inuit teams and get to know them. After each game, the Nordiks surprise their opponents with individual gifts of a hand-made beaded necklace, a small ulu knife and an inukshuk. They sometimes demonstrate throat singing to the amazement of girls on the other teams.

"The teams 'down south' are affected, too," Demers says. "They exchange gifts, they eat together. It opens their minds to the fact that Native people are not just what we read in the newspapers. They're healthy and they're happy."

"Our Nordiks are great ambassadors for Nunavik."

A member of the Nunavik Nordiks wears the team’s jacket at a tournament in Ottawa. The players know the responsibility that comes with wearing their signature jackets as they represent Nunavik.

'It has helped me mentally as well as physically'

John Cairney, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, happened to be listening to a local sports talk radio station when he learned of the demise of Joé Juneau's select program. He called the producer of the show, who gave him a contact for Juneau.

At his own expense, Dr. Cairney, along with Zoe Poucher, a master's student in the faculty, travelled to this year's select training camp, which was held March 11 to 20 in Inukjuak. What he and Ms. Poucher experienced, he says, was "truly remarkable to witness." They were able to experience the camp and the growth of the team, talk to the coaches, to Danielle Demers and some of the parents, as well. They also saw what Juneau and Demers and the other coaches are up against.

"There wasn't a single day when there weren't significant challenges," Dr. Cairney says. Some of the young women had come from difficult, abusive situations. There were youngsters dealing with addiction, youngsters on suicide watch. And yet, as the team rounded into form – Juneau is a classic "position" and "responsibility" hockey coach – the two academics saw a remarkable transformation. They also say they found "a fairly strong consensus that this program is going good."

One who certainly believes so is the captain of the Nordiks, Siqua Munick, who comes from the small community of Kuujjuaq and has played on the select team for five years, beginning at age 12. She aspires to be a mechanic and says the program has given her a belief in herself that she will carry on into her schooling.

"It has helped me mentally as well as physically," she says. "I've made a lot of friends from the other communities. Being on the team and playing keeps me away from peer pressure."

Dr. Cairney, who is also president-elect of the North American Society for Pediatric Exercise Medicine, also takes issue with the consultant's report and its methodology. "It is my contention," he says, "that the conclusions drawn from the review cannot be fully supported by the data collected."

Since a critical question looked at in the review was whether participation in the program prevents crime, he feels that a conclusion is difficult, if not impossible, to reach without the ability to compare statistics from before and during the program. "I am sympathetic to the issue of lack of statistical data to measure crime rates," he wrote. "The authors nevertheless draw a strong conclusion: there is 'no causal link between the program and crime prevention.' While this may indeed be the case, the authors lack sufficient evidence to conclude this definitively."

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Cairney added that, "My bone of contention is why they can come to such a strong conclusion in the report that it has no impact. They might have said 'as far as we know,' but to state it unequivocally … ?"

"We have nothing to do with what might have happened over the last five years in people's homes," Juneau adds. "To use police and crime statistics to say we have not done our work … c'mon."

In Dr. Cairney's professional opinion, the program has a significant "paying it forward" element. The players grow up and mature in the program and "graduate" to become coaches and leaders back in their small communities. The academics took particular note of the pride the players had in receiving and wearing their team jackets.

"You have to consider the symbolic value of this," Dr. Cairney says. "The jackets are a recruitment poster. They're about bonding, about representing their region.

"I think they've sorely missed the point."

Members of the Nunavik Nordiks gather for a group jog March 24, 2017 prior to their game in Ottawa.

'The program is a big part of who I am'

As word spread of the possibility that the program might be cancelled, support from around the country began coming in to Makivik Corp. on behalf of Juneau.

Tom Renney, the president of Hockey Canada, wrote from Calgary: "There is no individual hockey award, gold medal, or Stanley Cup that comes close to achieving what the NYHDP has done and we hope will continue to do for the youth of … all of Nunavik."

Justice Louise Otis of McGill University's faculty of law, a former judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal and past chair of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, wrote to say, "Based on my experience, I am convinced that programs such as the NYHDP positively contributes to lowering the propensity to commit crimes in vulnerable youth."

Similar letters of support came from elected politicians, the president of the Kativik School Board, school principals, coaches and parents – all to no avail.

Makivik Corporation and the Kativik Regional Government countered that the vote to alter the program was unanimous. They felt that whatever money they could put toward minor hockey would be spread more within Nunavik's 14 communities, that sending select teams south was too expensive ever to be cost effective.

In a "fact sheet" sent to this newspaper, Makivik said Juneau's program "is designed to reduce crime prevention in the Nunavik region. Submissions are evaluated based on their ability to reduce crime. The NYHDP scored poorly on this measure."

The president of Makivik, Jobie Tukkiapik tried to explain the decision in an open letter. "We have observed many hockey enthusiasts, and political leaders – notably in the Québec National Assembly – speak in favour of the hockey program we as elected Inuit leaders made a difficult decision on," he wrote. "Our choice was years in the making, and included a 100-page professional evaluation … we want to move to a new chapter in the development of minor hockey in Nunavik, developed by and for Inuit, and played by many more children and youth."

Nunavik Nordiks Noemie Koneak (13) is checked into the boards during a game March 24, 2017 in Ottawa. The Inuit girl’s hockey team is in Ottawa for a tournament. DAVE CHAN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

William Tagoona of Kuujjuaq, an Inuit musician and politician who was involved in the signing of the historic James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, told The Globe that the decision has to be seen in light of cultural realities.

Many older First Nations and Inuit see "select" as a stigma, Tagoona says. It is a reminder of residential school – in his own case, because of his fair complexion, he was "selected" to attend the "white" school in Churchill while friends were sent to the all-Inuit vocational school.

"When I see words like 'select,'" he says, "it brings me back. It tells me, 'You're not good enough to go over there.' "

Tagoona stands by the board's decision, hoping that a revised program in Nunavik can be more like the minor-hockey setup in Nunavut, which has produced such premier players as Jordin Tootoo of the Chicago Blackhawks.

"We knew we were going to get criticized because of who we were dealing with – an ex-NHLer," Tagoona says. "It wasn't just another Joe Blow from Montreal. If so, people wouldn't care. But because he's a big NHL hero, they care."

Joé Juneau wishes it would never get personal. Had the decision been purely financial, he would have accepted it. But it is the report that he could not abide by. In his mind, it says that his 11 years of work has been wasted.

"Of course I'm hurt," he says. "The program is a big part of who I am."

As for Malina Berthe, she still had one final thing to say in her social media cri de coeur over the death of the Nunavik Nordiks.

"If someday I become president of Makivik," she signed off, "I'll bring the select program back.

"And I'll be one of the coaches."