How Nunavut hockey’s ‘band of brothers’ sparked a new era for the North

Team Nunavut's Garren Voisey during the 2019 Canada Winter Games. (Courtesy Vincent Theriault)

There’s an adage head coach Martin Joy recites often to his young pupils in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

“Adversity builds character, but it also reveals it,” he says.

For the names that comprise the roster for Joy’s squad, Team Nunavut, the battle just to play the game has revealed plenty. Passion for the sport isn’t tough to come by in the North, but the environment in which that passion lives presents its own novel difficulties not experienced by young players elsewhere in the country.

In Nunavut, adversity comes as physical distance, Joy says, in the vast expanses that lie between teammates from different remote communities across the territory.

“It’s always a challenge in the North,” the coach says.

The geography separating those communities isn’t the kind simply bested by a couple hours’ drive down the highway. Each year, when tournaments are held to bring together players from all over the area, it takes a logistical feat just to get all the players to the same spot.

“Everything’s by air travel,” says Jared Ottenhof, president of Hockey North, the body that oversees amateur hockey in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. “There’s no road connecting any of the communities together. There’s some communities that actually travel by snowmobile to get tournaments sometimes.”

Then there’s the matter of what happens when everyone arrives.

“Finding spots for all the kids and parents to stay as well — some communities have to resort to billeting and hosting families and players at times, there’s often not a lot of hotel rooms. But we always find a way to make it work.”

And, of course, there’s the question of whether the ice holds up.

“Twenty-three out of the 25 rinks we have up here are natural ice rinks,” Joy says, meaning locals are nearly constantly at the whim of the weather.

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It’s the scope of that complicated reality that makes the territory’s landmark achievement in 2019 all the more impressive.

It was then that Team Nunavut, an all-star roster of sorts comprised of the top under-16 boys from the area, travelled 2,876 kilometres southwest to Red Deer, Alta., to make their first-ever appearance at the Canada Winter Games.

It was an emotional journey for those involved — representing Nunvavut on such a large stage and serving as a beacon for those back home. But just getting to that point took almost half a decade of preparation, says Joy.

“It was a four-year process of evaluating what we had as a team and where the programs were,” the coach says. “Just working hard and making sure that we could find the right amount of players to go, because we are a small territory — like 33,000 people. And inside that you have about 300 to 400 hockey players that would be in that age group.

“So we wanted to make sure that if we could go to the games, we were respectable in regards to the accomplishments on the ice but (also) that the program was ready for it.”

Chipping away at the process at home, the next step for Joy and the others involved in Hockey Nunavut was assessing the kids at the Arctic Winter Games — an international tournament held every two years. Team Nunavut finished fourth in the bantam male division at the 2016 iteration. Then, at the 2018 Games, they earned fourth once again in bantam male, but finished with a silver in the midget male bracket.

“We started to see some players that were starting to stand out a little bit. We could see sort of a groundswell of development happening,” Joy says of the progress found during those tourneys. “There was a good group of supporters who thought that it would be unique and an excellent opportunity for Nunavut to really join the rest of Canada, and be part of the major games in Canada. The Canada Winter Games are massive, and it’s just the opportunity that we wanted to give to the kids.”

Nunavut defenceman Garren Voisey looks on during a game. (Courtesy Vincent Theriault)

So, in February 2019, that’s what they did, pulling together kids from three different time zones and making the trek to Alberta for the national tournament. To say the opportunity was a novel one for the players on that roster would be a wild understatement — many of the players on the trip had never been amid that type of atmosphere at all, let alone faced that level of competition.

Game 1 pitted Team Nunavut against a familiar foe, Team Yukon. Of course, this time the rivals’ meeting was to be under the bright lights of the national tournament, with far more eyes looking on. But in the final moments before the squad took the ice to make their historic debut, it was the crew of adults feeling anxious to get things rolling, not the kids.

“I think the coaching staff were a little bit more nervous than anything else,” Joy recalls with a laugh. “But it was the funniest thing — the team itself was really relaxed inside the dressing room. They were just confident. They were confident in who they were.”

And they knew that regardless of how they performed, of whether they filled the standings with W’s or L’s, their first foray into this new environment was about something bigger.

“It was a bit of a spectacle for sure, for them to be there. But they really got into the idea of playing for what’s on the front of your chest, playing for home,” Joy says. “You could really see that this was a band of brothers down there.”

But a funny thing happened in that first game. The band of brothers didn’t just show up — they won. A five-goal effort in their first appearance on the national stage earned them a 5-3 win over Team Yukon. Josie Cote clinched the victory with a game-winning power-play marker midway through the third frame, adding an empty-netter for good measure.

“It feels amazing,” Cote said repeatedly to reporters after the historic win. “All the boys were going crazy, the coaches were going crazy, they were super happy. We’re the underdogs going into this tournament — it feels amazing to get a win out of it.”

Nunavut’s Josie Cote celebrates a goal during the tournament. (Courtesy Rod Ince)

Back home, the feeling was much the same.

“To see a team from Nunavut compete at that level, and be successful, that was amazing,” says Ottenhof. “I think it shows that we have players in the smallest communities that can come together and play on a team like that and be successful…. That win, it makes everything very real. It’s not just paying your fees, going to practice, playing your games — it meant something to the other kids as well. It gives you something to look forward to a bit more.”

Joy’s side didn’t register a second win at the tournament. But it didn’t matter. Returning home, they were lauded like champions for their barrier-breaking efforts. And the weight of that moment, clear immediately upon their arrival back in Nunavut, has become only more poignant as time’s passed.

“These guys ended up being ambassadors — they went back to their home communities and were involved in some local camps. They gave back. They helped us with coaching,” Joy says. “Even today, a year or so after, you still see the guys wearing their Canada Winter Games gear — they’ll sometimes wear it at the rink, and the younger kids just look up to them. That’s the most important thing … giving that little bit of hope.”

Team Nunavut’s run to Red Deer has others wanting to make history, too.

“Positivity is something that is contagious when you see it — when you see a local Northern boy playing on the biggest stage in Canada and representing himself so well,” Joy says. “We’ve got a bunch of younger kids that have already started talking about wanting to make the 2023 Canada Winter Games. We’ve got the girls wanting to be the first girls’ team from Nunavut to get a shot to go there.

“There’s always a cost, but you can’t really talk about dollars and cents when you look at the impact that you could have on these young people’s lives. This is the stuff you remember forever.”

With registration numbers in the region on the rise — Joy says this year was the Iqualuit Amateur Hockey Association’s biggest on record — the task at hand is to build on the growing legacy, to make the 2019 Games the first brick in a longer path.

“We always talk to the kids about lighting a spark. That spark was meant for all the younger generations back home, the impact that they’ll have on future generations of hockey players that were there to see Josie Cote score the game-winning goal, or Inuuki Burke in net making some great saves,” the coach says. “It really shows the kids in Nunavut that you can achieve great things — that just because you’re isolated, it doesn’t mean the opportunities won’t be there for you if you work hard, if you dedicate yourself to the craft.”

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