It made it’s way to the northern village of Kangiqsualujjuaq with us on the plane. I’m talking about The Cup that had a whole lot of folks all across Nunavik crazy for hockey a few weeks before. Three years earlier, I brought a medal of my own to this same place. A bronze medal won less than a month before at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Much of the village greeted me at the airport. An experience I will never forget. Countless smiles piled one upon the other filling the window of the small building made my heart skip a beat. A first indication of the warmth I’d experience while spending the week in that fly-in village on the east side of Ungava Bay. In Nunavik, not Nunavut.
Yes, this time the visit was a little different. With a summer Olympics eight months behind and no future Olympics in sight, I was visiting now as I was then to support the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program (NYHDP) headed by my friend Joe Juneau. The excitement at the airport was to say hello again but more so to greet The Cup. The trophy I had nothing to do with but had the honor of carrying on board the small bush plane from Kuujjuaq. The Cup that had much of Nunavik glued to their radios listening to a girls hockey game a few weeks earlier. A game that the Bantom Team from Nunavik won. A team that faced opponents from organized clubs and city teams when they had only a week of practice together to prepare.
I got news of the victory from Facebook photos of ecstatic girls with their gold medals first in the south, in Ottawa, and then in the north in their respective villages. From emails forwarded from Joe Juneau, a former NHL star and Olympic silver medalist who had more than enough victories of his own to celebrate. I remember one email from Joe when I wrote back saying ‘you’re more pumped for these girls than for your own success back in the day’. The response? ‘I’m so proud of what they did. So proud.’
Sitting in the Montreal airport last week waiting for the call to board the flight to Kuujjuaq, the woman named Lise from First Air (The Airline of the North!) came to say hello to me and ask why I was going up to Nunavik. The moment I mentioned the hockey she started talking about The Cup the girls won and how amazing it was…how everyone was talking about it that day. She had tears in her eyes and said ‘do you know how much these kids deal with? Do you know how important this is to them??’ I said that yes, I did, and yes, I do.
Which is why I came back. I made Joe a promise that when I was done with sport I would be back to share with the kids he works with and support the coaches and staff that make the hockey programs come alive.
So when I kept hearing about The Cup again at the airport in Kuujjuaq, when Mary from another village in Nunavik told me how she listened to the radio ‘like the old days!’. She listened with her one year old grandson who was silent as Sara, who was down in Ottawa for the tournament with the team gave the commentary through her cell phone linked into one of the FM radio stations all across Nunavik. Mary said she about had a heart attack when the game was coming close to ending and the girls scored in the closing seconds. She said ‘my little grandson can’t ever sit still and he didn’t move an inch for the whole last period…it was like he was listening to the game!’.
Then finally when I saw Andrea and Julia, captain and assistant captain respectively, at the airport in their hometown of Kangiqsualujjuaq, and the big smiles on their faces when they said hi to me and I handed them their Cup, I felt the impact of this success. It was like me bringing that Olympic medal to share with everyone except this meant more because this was their home, and a hometown success.
We cruised into town in style on the dogsled, me, Andrea and Julia. Julia and I took turns running alongside the sled on the rises and holding the cup careful not to drop it. We laughed and cheered. Because I was with two of the champions of the team I got to share in their success. I felt like a winner, too, because they shared their medals and The Cup with me.
The Bantom Team from Nunavik all share their success with the kids in their villages. They went home to parades and congratulations. They show to the other kids what’s possible when you work hard, give the effort and persevere, never giving up. They don’t need an Olympian like me to come and give these messages because now they are giving them themselves.
What a difference three years makes. I can hardly imagine what a few more years of the NYHDP will allow for. What kind of leaders these kids are going to grow to become. I could see it in the level of hockey all weekend. The same tournament three years before was ten steps behind what I saw this time around.
Joe Juneau, Gaetan Boucher, Benoit Lamarche and me, with 13 Olympic Games and eleven Olympic medals between the four of us, got to share with Julia and Andrea ideas of all these elements to the entire crew of kids in town for the Bantom Hockey Tournament. Give these kids ideas of what is possible when you are willing to learn, grow and apply yourself to working towards your goals.
I asked Andrea’s Mom, Nancy, what the girls best qualities were. ‘Julia, she cares so much. She cares about everyone around her and is always thinking of others. Andrea? She never leaves anyone behind.’ These were things I saw in the two girls during the days spent in their town that ended today. On and off the ice, they showed me true leadership qualities mixed with compassion that makes me thrilled to think of what they’ll do with the experience that lays ahead for them this coming June.
We shared the news that the six of us were now a team in training for the Grand Defie Pierre Lavoie (GDPL), a 1000km bike relay in June. An event that will be challenging to say the least for all of us, let alone Andrea and Julia who live in a place without many roads to ride on. These girls are representatives of Nunavik and will come back with even more to share. Not just of succeeding but more importantly of never giving up.
I met three of the boys who did the GDPL two years before at the airport and they shared just how much the experience meant to them. One of them even told me he preferred cycling to hockey. The other was getting ready to go south for school and that he felt like he could do anything after finishing the Defie.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of this team. A delight to see the two youngsters, Julia and Andrea, I met three years ago during that first visit grow into their potential. Much in part because they are given the outlets to allow for this growth, through sport and play.
And The Cup? Well it was a huge hit. Something that will be talked about for a long time in Nunavik. No doubt in my mind it’s the first of many, many more successes.