SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles

IF THE GOAL of the modern executive is a corner office with a view of the water, Jo� 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.

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 Jo�'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."

Continue Story
1 2 3