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Photos by Lindsey Gibeau/Valberg Imaging

There is no denying it. We Canadians do love our sports — sports that are fun, casually played or competitive, on an individual level, or practiced in front of large crowds cheering exciting plays or the other side’s faux pas. We love sports of all kinds in fact.

But if one were forced to choose, to identify the one sport that connects, that speaks loudest to all age groups and has perhaps the biggest reach across the vast geographic spectrum of our land, it is fair to say that it is the game of hockey that holds that highest of honours with fans and players. It is hockey that has captured and so tenaciously held on to the hearts and minds of young and old, to the point of being our national sports obsession. Everyone knows, “Hockey is Canada’s game!”

Yes, hockey is Canada’s game and nowhere is that love and passion for the game more evident than in the North where youngsters take to playground or street games of shinny faster than seals are known to take to water. And as far as acceptable dress and fashion might go amongst young and old alike — hockey jerseys, toques and caps fearlessly and proudly declaring their favourite players or NHL teams abound in northern communities large and small. For them, hockey is more than just a game — it’s a passion.

Unfortunately, the reality is that some youngsters who might want to engage in their passion, especially those living in the small northern communities far away from large urban centres, lack easy access to hockey gear and because of that many might never have the opportunity to lace up the blades, don the helmet to develop new confidence and skills, or feel the thrill of what it is like take to the ice fully dressed to re-imagine and emulate the skills of their hockey heroes.

Dream Team Project Gear UPRecognizing the imbalance of opportunity, by virtue of geography and socio-economic challenges, Ottawa photographer Michelle Valberg and friend, Joan Weinman, co-created Project North after her first trip North. It was thought at first that their project would be a one-time used hockey equipment drive to outfit some northern youngsters with the gear to help get them started in the game.

That initial equipment drive proved so successful that Project North applied to the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) “Goals and Dreams Fund” for assistance and immediately won their support. Recognizing the unquestionable benefits and value to youngsters and communities that the Project North concept brought, Scotiabank and First Air (as the official airline of Project North) also joined in providing key sponsorship support right at the very beginning.

That was five years ago. And, in a sense, a dedicated “dream team” of partners, working together under the Project North banner to improve the lives of northern youth through hockey, was born.

Fast-forward to Friday, March 27, 2015. Normally it would be a school day in Nunavik, but on this morning, the schools are closed. Something is in the air. Estimates are that close to half the residents of Kuujjuaq, (population 2,300) have turned out at the airport and community centre in anticipation of a very special arrival. The buzz is electric and it is soon evident that this morning will be anything but normal. The day is to begin with an event billed as a “Celebration of Hockey in Kuujjuaq.”

The disembarking Project North “dream team” that arrived from Montreal that very special morning via First Air jet was all smiles and good cheer. And why north They were the happiest of hockey ambassadors, bringing a combined donation of 25 bags of new hockey equipment filled with all the necessities from skates to helmets, to pads and sticks and more. All of it is intended to go to some of Kuujjuaq’s blossoming and eager young hockey players.

On this visit North to Kuujjuaq —Project North’s first — the “dream team” had pulled out all the stops, had outdone itself. Its Scotiabank partner, represented by John Doig, Chief Marketing Officer, had thought to bring along a few team ringers, a few crowd pleasers — NHL Alumni Marty McSorley and John LeClair, along with none other than Lord Stanley’s grand giTh to hockey, the game’s holy grail, the ultimate prize in hockey — the Stanley Cup.

Present to assist the Project North team with the distribution of the gear and share in the Stanley Cup festivities being held at the aptly named Kuujjuaq Forum was Jobie Tukkiapik, President of Makivik Corporation and First Air Chairman, and Brock Friesen, First Air CEO. The surprise, the delight, the joy and words and gestures of appreciation by the youngsters receiving the gear and from those getting up close and personal with the Stanley Cup, or having their pictures or selfies with it, spoke volumes to the power and aura of the prize and of hockey itself.

Sharing the thrill of the Stanley Cup (left to right) Project North founder Michelle Valberg; Project North Executive Director Jeff Turner; First Air's Bert van der Stege, Vice-President Commercial; NHL Alumni Marty McSorley and John LeClair; Brock Friesen, First Air CEO; Makivik Corporation President and First Air Chairman Jobie Tukkiapik; Kuujjuaq's Mayor, Tunu Napartuk; and Scotiabank's John Doig, Chief Marketing Officer.

The festivities for the day were far from over however for Project North’s team. They would board First Air again to fly on to Iqaluit that same afternoon to set up a community viewing and photo opportunity session with the Stanley Cup at the Arctic Winter Games Arena and prepare for an early evening VIP Hockey Game for local charities in Iqaluit, featuring NHL Alumni Marty McSorley and John LeClair as coaches of the competing teams.

Iqalummiut turned out in the hundreds to see the Stanley Cup and attend the game. On hand at the Arctic Winter Games Arena for the ceremonial puck-drop were: the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council; the Honourable Peter Taptuna, Premier of Nunavut; Iqaluit Mayor, Mary Ekho Wilman; Scotiabank’s John Doig and First Air’s Vice-President Commercial, Bert van der Stege.

The very successful evening of hockey fun boosted the substantive donations from Scotiabank and First Air, to raise a total of $16,200 that was shared by local charities: Qayuqtuvik Society — Iqaluit Soup Kitchen and the YWCA-Qimavik Women’s Shelter. Hockey’s prominence and the generosity of Project North and its “dream team” partners made for a day likely forever cemented in the collective memories of Kuujjuaq and Iqaluit youth and residents. It was the Friday like none other. The Friday that the Stanley Cup came to town — a Friday where the love of hockey was on display and the dreams of young and old alike came true.

“We are honoured to have been able to work with our partners, Scotiabank and Project North, to bring much needed hockey equipment to 25 deserving youths,” said Bert van der Stege, First Air’s Vice President Commercial. “Bringing the equipment and the Stanley Cup to the North was a great way for us to show appreciation for our clients and communities whose support has made us the Airline of the North.”