Kuujjuaq high school hockey team competes in provincial league for 1st time

The 16 players travel more than 1,400 kilometres from their homes in Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik to compete against high school teams in southern Quebec.

Coach of Natturaliit sends most dedicated players — and snappiest dressers — 1,400 km to compete

Team captain Siinasi Tassé said hockey keeps him motivated to stay in school. "Without hockey in my life I don't know who I'd be right now," he said. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Siinasi Tassé says he doesn't know where he'd be in his life if he didn't have hockey.  

The 16-year-old travelled more than 1,400 kilometres from his home in Kuujjuaq, in Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik, to compete in southern Quebec with his teammates. 

"It's a great opportunity to play. It keeps me motivated, and it's fun," said the captain of the Natturaliit — the Eagles, in Inuktitut.

For the first time, Tassé and the rest of his team  from Jaanimmarik School are taking part in the Quebec Interscholastic Hockey League.
To take part in the trips down south, players with the Natturaliit have to keep up good grades and show their motivation. (Alison Brunette/CBC)

The team travels south for several weeks at a time to compete with other high school teams.

In November, the Natturaliit travelled between Quebec City and Montreal for two weeks.

This week, the team is bouncing back and forth between Sherbrooke and Montreal, playing against several private schools, including Selwyn House in Westmount and Bishop's College School in Lennoxville.

Earning their ice time

Head coach Danny Fafard knows his players love hockey, and he's harnessed that passion to keep them performing well both on the rink and in the classroom.

Fafard designed a program called Projet Briques,  in which the students have to earn a certain number of bricks before they are allowed to travel with the rest of the team.

"They get ten bricks for showing up on time, and ten bricks for their attitude and behaviour on and off the ice," said Fafard.

Teachers can also give out bricks for their students' academic performance.  

"Then we combine them together, and the computer will tell us who has the most bricks," he said.

"The top 16 players get to make the trip."

Just like the pros, the Natturaliit make a point of dressing up before a game. (Alison Brunette/CBC)

Dressing up for the occasion

Fafard says his standards are high, and he makes no exceptions.  

He says some students who took part in the league in November aren't on the roster this time around because they didn't make the cut.

But Fafard says having to earn bricks keeps the students motivated all year long.

"If you tell them there is a trip in February, that's too far in their mind," he says. "This way, they stay focused."

Fafard said the players don't take the trips lightly.

Being part of a league rather than just participating in a tournament allows them to pick up tricks from other teams.

That includes dressing up before their games, in burgundy dress shirts, black ties and red bow ties.  

Fafard said the experience they gain from playing against different teams is invaluable.

"A tournament lasts one weekend, and it's over," he said. "This way we can keep them in the program the entire year."

One girl on the team

Though the league is mixed, you won't find many girls on the ice.  

Ashley Koneak is the only female player for the Natturaliit, and the 17-year-old admits that can be hard.  

"I don't want to disappoint my teammates," she said.

Koneak said she doesn't get fewer passes or less ice time. She said playing against other teams increases the level of difficulty.

"When we play against each other, we're pretty soft," says Koneak. "So it's pretty hard for me, not being used to playing roughly."
Goaltender Eric Lemire sports a stylish sports jacket before the game against Westmount's Selwyn House. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Goaltender Eric Lemire said Monday's 7–1 lost against Bishop's College School was a bit "embarrassing."

But the Natturaliit came back the following day with a 6–5 win, beating BCS, a team that had been undefeated until then.

The team took on Collège Stanislas in Montreal on Friday, before heading into the finals next week.

With files from Elias Abboud