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A Northern Light
MICHAEL FARBER
February 18, 2008
In an Inuit region of the Canadian subarctic, former NHL player (and trained rocket scientist) Jo� Juneau is changing the world ... one slap shot at a time
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February 18, 2008

A Northern Light

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

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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 Jo� 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."

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