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Just as the snow starts to melt and icicles appear on almost everything, kids (young and old) throughout the North, bemoan the fact that another ice hockey season is quickly coming to an end. Playing and participating in our nation’s favourite game quickly changes to watching and waiting as the playoffs progress towards their grand finale. Those teams still competing play towards the eventual dream of holding aloft at centre ice, the Stanley Cup. The very same dream is shared by many hundreds of kids throughout the North. For many, though, that dream seems (all too often) very far away.

Seven years ago, Ottawa-based photographer Michelle Valberg made one simple phone call resulting in her travelling to the Arctic for the very first time. Not only did the incredible landscapes, people and animals capture her imagination and vision but so too did the sights and sounds of kids playing street hockey at 2 am under the midnight sun. At times, the energized young players had mismatching gear, one glove, no helmets, no goal net, to name but a few examples. That didn’t matter, what they lacked in proper gear was more than made up for in the passion, time and energy they had for “the game”. Michelle saw this and Project North was born!

Feature_6_JA16Project North is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in Canada’s North. In seven short years, Project North has delivered over $750,000 worth of new hockey equipment and gear (and some soccer gear!) to 24 Inuit communities in Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut.

The North is defined by distances. Those many miles between isolated communities are often an impediment but, as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Project North’s latest plan (this past April) was ambitious: one tour, three days, seven communities, over 7,000 kilometres and an excited and motivated team. Fulfilling ambitions, plans and dreams is always easier when collaboration is involved. First Air has been a sponsor of Project North from the very beginning and who better to step up and provide the necessary aircraft and crew to make this happen? Despite having no branches or stores in Nunavut, Scotiabank and Canadian Tire have joined and supported Project North without hesitation. Along with the Project North team, Canada’s leading Arctic expedition cruise ship company, Adventure Canada, also stepped in to play their part. NHL stars and Stanley Cup winners Lanny McDonald and Mark Napier would join the tour along with one more very special guest: the Stanley Cup!

As anyone who knows the North will tell you, news travels fast. Coordination was done in and for Kugluktuk, Resolute Bay, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Iqaluit, Igloolik, Cambridge Bay and Yellowknife. On this particular tour, it was Igloolik and Kugluktuk’s turn to receive 25 sets of new hockey gear each. All the hard work done by the Project North team, their sponsors and partners and by the communities themselves had one goal in mind: to put smiles on the faces of the kids wherever the tour landed.

The energy and excitement on board the First Air ATR was hard to contain. Upon landing, when the doors opened, that same energy and excitement spilled out and was met and more than countered by the crowds who, rather than wait at the community event location, assembled at the airport. Smiles and laughter were only matched by the wide-eyed wonder and respectful behaviour around the Stanley Cup. Newborn babies were placed “in the cup” by beaming, proud parents. Grown men and women approached the cup nervously and at times rather shyly to give it a loving hug or kiss. Names of past winning teams and players were looked for with favouritism and intent by hockey jersey-clad fans. Never have so many “selfies” been taken at an event!

Above: Community members join hockey players in Pond Inlet. © Michelle Valberg
Above: Community members join hockey players in Pond Inlet. © Michelle Valberg

Lanny (in his Calgary Flames jersey) and Mark (in his Montreal Canadiens) were as patient, caring and proud as the day was long; they could not do enough for the kids every step of the tour. Thousands of autographs and photographs were given and taken and they were often the last to leave the venue. Phil Pritchard, the official keeper of the Stanley Cup, also could not do enough to ensure that everyone in every community had the chance to have their photograph taken with arguably the most famous and recognizable trophy in sports.

Throughout the tour, the (sometimes fickle) weather was incredible which helped keep everything on schedule. After the gear and equipment donation at the community hall in Kugluktuk, the tour group moved next door to the amazing new visitor and heritage centre. As should always be the case, the whole group (including Lanny, Mark and the Stanley Cup) went to visit the Elders of the community. Familiarity, smiles and hugs rendered cultural differences obsolete. Resolute Bay is the most northern location the Stanley Cup has ever been. Arctic Bay was a celebration of everything Canadian; Lanny and Mark laced up their skates and played the local kids on rinks created on the sea ice in front of the tiny but incredibly proud community. After the game, the local hockey team presented a clearly emotional Lanny McDonald with a special puck inscribed with “Lanny, thank you very much for coming to our community along with the Stanley Cup. We are honoured to have you here”. Half the town, the Stanley Cup and the RCMP in full red serge, watched from the sidelines.

The Mounties once again played their part in Pond Inlet when they assisted Phil Pritchard in carrying the cup up a nearby iceberg. The first time the cup has ever been on an iceberg! In Igloolik, dozens of excited and energetic kids surrounded The Cup and the mountain of new hockey gear. Everyone was smiling!
The tour culminated with the Northwest Territories Government in Yellowknife very kindly opening and making the Legislative Assembly available (on a Saturday evening!). It marked the end of an incredible three days, a journey spanning the North and thousands of kilometres. More than anything, it illustrated just how important goals and dreams are for kids. For the thousands of kids who cheered, smiled and realized their own dream of touching the Stanley Cup, playing with two hockey greats and accessing hockey gear and equipment, it was an event they will never forget.

Project North, along with its committed partners, knows working together and helping to fulfill children’s goals, ambitions and dreams is necessary, vital and important.