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2016 Silver Anniversary Award winner: Joé Juneau

Former pro hockey player went from getting goals to giving back

In his younger years, Joé Juneau didn’t yearn to start a nonprofit. As a hockey player who studied aeronautics, he didn’t imagine a career outside of his sport or engineering. Somewhere along the way, though, Juneau found himself directing youth organizations in an Inuit community in Canada.

How did he get from hockey stardom to a life dedicated to service in an isolated part of the world? He can thank hockey for that.

Moving south

After watching the U.S. Olympic team defeat the Russians in 1980, Juneau pictured himself on Olympic ice wearing a Canadian uniform. He dreamed of one day moving to the U.S. to play college hockey, then moving on to the Olympic team and a professional career. Seven years after he watched that fabled Olympic game, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute offered Juneau two things he wanted most: an education in science and a chance to play Division I collegiate hockey.

Hailing from Quebec, Juneau did not speak fluent English when he arrived on Rensselaer’s campus, and the language barrier was more difficult in the classroom than expected.

“Even with studying at night after practice, my first two exams I failed,” he said. “It wasn’t because I wasn’t working. It was really because of my language issue.”

Juneau went to his coach, got a tutor, spent hours asking friends about different words and explained his situation to professors. Keeping a daily task list kept Juneau on track as he bounced from practice to study halls and classes each day. The effort and organization paid off. By his second set of exams, Juneau’s grades had dramatically improved and remained steady through his four years in college.

A dream realized

Juneau’s aspirations became a reality soon after he graduated from Rensselaer in 1991. He was the leading scorer in the 1992 Winter Olympics and led the Canadian national team to a silver medal. He then spent 13 seasons in the National Hockey League, playing for six teams and reaching a pair of Stanley Cup Finals.

A career spent bouncing between cities and teams taught Juneau the importance of learning to adjust to new circumstances. Whether that meant switching up his game as he grew older and saw less offensive action, or getting used to the playing atmosphere at each city, he learned to adapt in order to succeed.

Nunavik and nonprofits

After retiring from professional hockey in 2004, Juneau took a trip to the northern region of Quebec, where he came upon Nunavik – an Inuit community vastly different from his hometown of Pont-Rouge. The ice rink wasn’t being used and children in the community seemed to lack direction. Instantly, his mind raced. He wanted to help. So Juneau set up another trip to meet with Inuit leaders. He proposed a hockey program for children in Nunavik that would yield educational benefits, too.

In 2006, the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program was born. But Juneau soon realized that he wanted to do more than just create an infrastructure and leave it behind . So he moved his family to Nunavik, where they lived for two years, to immerse himself in the project and the Inuit way of life. The number of members continued to increase each year and former participants transitioned into coaching and leadership roles.

He credits the program’s long-term success with “going up there and adjusting to their way of teaching hockey and then implementing this program in a way that is really adjusted to those children and their way of learning.” 

After nine years, Juneau is content with the foundation he has laid in Nunavik and no longer feels the need to have input on the day-to-day decisions that keep the program viable. That’s part of its purpose – to empower the community to continue as they see fit. Juneau states his goal more succinctly: “I’m working to lose my job.”

The program has been so effective that Juneau has taken on an additional project in his hometown of Pont-Rouge. His passion for providing educational opportunities and hockey to people of Quebec continues to spread. Juneau never anticipated his life’s trajectory, but he is happy where he landed – and so are the people he has helped.