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Joe Juneau heads hockey program for Inuit children

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After 161 games in Boston over two-plus seasons, Joe Juneau was traded to Washington, a deal, he said, that brought him to tears.
After 161 games in Boston over two-plus seasons, Joe Juneau was traded to Washington, a deal, he said, that brought him to tears.REUTERS

Joe Juneau's post-NHL life is focused on life skills, helping to teach kids in far northern Quebec, the vast Arctic, and subarctic territory known as Nunavik (translation: "Great Land''), how to play hockey, get along in the world.

Oh, Nunavik is a different place, just as Juneau, like all wingers, is a bit off center. Delightfully and impressively so.

"There's polar bears in Nunavik,'' the former Bruin said matter-of-factly, as if the furry white behemoths were merely snow squirrels. "I'll go on Facebook sometimes, and I'll see one of our pee-wee hockey players with a rifle, standing next to a polar bear he's just killed. It's really something else.''

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Tuniq Berthe, from Tasiujaq, has been in the program for eight years now. This photo was taken a couple years ago when he was the Nunavik PeeWee Nordiks team captain. He is now a second-year Bantam and the team captain.
Tuniq Berthe, from Tasiujaq, has been in the program for eight years now. This photo was taken a couple years ago when he was the Nunavik PeeWee Nordiks team captain. He is now a second-year Bantam and the team captain.

All righty then, best we explain what Juneau, who turned 48 last week, is up to these days. First, on Friday, he will be in San Antonio to receive one of the six NCAA Silver Anniversary Awards bestowed on distinguished student-athletes who are 25 years out of college. Former NBA All-Star, and Georgetown graduate, Dikembe Mutombo also will be among the recipients. We too easily forget that the NCAA, despite its many calamities and contradictions, gets some things very right.

Juneau, who grew up just outside of Quebec City, came to RPI in the fall of 1987 and earned his degree in aeronautical engineering by the spring of 1990. Difficult stuff. All the more arduous for a 19-year-old kid, who grew up speaking only French in his hometown of Pont-Rouge, Quebec, to land in Troy, N.Y., and crack open books that would be hard for 99.76 percent of English-speaking students to decipher.

Juneau had to learn both a new language and the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow all in one fell swoop.

"I don't know if that's impressive,'' mused Juneau some 30 years after the genesis of those growing pains. "I think it might be more like stupid. I think back at that, and I think, 'What the [expletive] was I doing?' ''

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Juneau failed his first two exams at RPI, prompting him to consider packing up his skates, ditching the books, and heading home. Instead, he found help, tutors who steered him through verb conjugation and statistical analysis, and day by day he acquired a regimented scholarly discipline to form the steppingstones of academic success.

"I had to become very, very organized,'' he recalled, "and, with a lot of help from a lot of people, I got through it.''

Juneau earned his degree, went on to a highly successful NHL career, and while he's not a practicing engineer, he owns his own bush plane and frequently pilots it around northern Quebec in the summers, landing near whatever fishing hole catches his eye.

"I love flying,'' he said, "but what I love most is to have the plane and to get out to the country, to get out to the woods and the mountains.''

A little more than 10 years ago, his NHL career having ended in the spring of 2004, it was the urge to get away with his wife, Elsa, and two friends that led Juneau to Nunavik, the tundra roughly the size of California and with a total population of less than 13,000. There are only 14 villages in all of Nunavik, most near seacoast, ranging in population of fewer than 200 (Aupaluk) to somewhere under 2,500 (Kuujjuaq).

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Juneau was immediately taken by the land and its people, predominantly Inuits, the indigenous people who lived primarily in igloos until the early 20th century. He was also struck by the fact that the villages, many with indoor skating rinks, were without hockey programs. Kids played the game, but mostly outdoors, basically street hockey, with no adult supervision.

"Some villages would have a few kids playing, but it was always the same kids, the most privileged,'' Juneau recalled. "It would be the mayor's son, and a few friends who had parents with jobs and money, and that was about it. No coaching. So kids would always be by themselves.''

In a matter of months, working with community leaders eager for their children to play an organized sport, Juneau began the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program. He and Elsa moved to Nunavik with their two girls, Heloise and Ophelie, for two years, with Joe pulling together the sundry nuts and bolts necessary to shape a youth program. Elsa home-schooled the girls.

When the program was fully up and running, the Juneaus moved back near Quebec City, and to this day Joe's full-time career is administering the program, darting back to Nunavik a few times each year when necessary. Meanwhile, he has begun a similar pilot program in Pont-Rouge, using organized hockey to keep kids focused, on the right track. He hopes to expand the model throughout all Quebec.

Part of the impetus in beginning the Nunavik program, noted Juneau, is the region's high rate of suicide in a society where life expectancy is only age 60. "It's the No. 1 killer,'' he said.

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According to the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society, an Inuit in his or her late teens is 25 times more likely to commit suicide than a teenager elsewhere in Quebec. The hockey program Juneau implemented there has kids in classrooms, matching every minute on the ice with a minute of life studies, some of that book work focused on simply staying happy, healthy, alive.

Each year, said Juneau, upward of 600 children participate in the program. Over the 10 years, he figures some 1,200 kids, roughly 10 percent of Nunavik's total population, has laced 'em up. Some of the former players are now young adult coaches and they bring upward of 80 kids, boys and girls, to tournaments in and around Quebec City and Ottawa each season. A key to the success, he said, is not putting the Inuit children in tournaments in which they'll be overmatched.

"Because of the suicide rates,'' noted Juneau, "what we don't want to do is put kids on the ice in situations where they just get their [butt] kicked and they get out of there with self-esteem down to the floor.''

One in a string of talented forwards ushered too quickly off Causeway Street, Juneau's time with the Bruins was short. A dynamic young scorer upon arriving from the 1992 Olympics, he rolled up 102 points in his rookie season (1992-93) and was gone by the following spring, dished to the Capitals at the trade deadline for the undeniable force that was Al "The Planet" Iafrate.

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"I was in tears,'' Juneau recalled while at the Quebec City airport on Thursday, a fresh bunch of Nunavik players about to arrive for a tourney. "I just wanted to be in Boston all my life, all my career. I was attached to it. I loved the city. I loved the fans. I loved the whole thing about it.

"Then you find out you're traded and you are moving on. It's very difficult, but you have to move on.''

More than 20 years later, Joe Juneau has moved on, to an area almost too big to imagine. To a place where polar bears roam, a place where some Inuit children cling to life with the promise of another workout, another hockey game, another day.


Kevin Paul Dupont's "On Second Thought" appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.