Emma Connell, a teacher by training, took a job as a guide with Outward Bound Canada before COVID-19 shut everything down and sent her back to Hampton, NS, to be near family. As summer rolled along and with no signs of getting back to her job, she decided to pursue an idea she had been mulling — teaching in the North. “Within a span of three weeks, I had accepted a position at an elementary school, packed up my house and relocated,” Connell says.
Connell arrived in Kugaaruk, Nunavut, in August to teach a Grade 6 class. A sports enthusiast, she volunteered to coach volleyball and signed up for co-ed soccer, a game she had played competitively in her youth, at the turf-covered arena.
“I didn’t plan to start a women’s hockey league when I moved here,” she notes. But as winter began to close in, and the end-of-season soccer tournaments got underway, Connell’s thoughts turned to playing her second favourite sport and she asked about signing up with a women’s team. That’s when she discovered there was no equipment for women, and no time because they had to take care of the children.
Connell figured she could help remove one of these hurdles. Research online uncovered Project North where she applied for some used skates and helmets — “the absolute basics” to get girls and women on the ice.
“It was an exciting prospect,” says Jeff Turner, Vice President of Project North, a not-for-profit started by world-renowned explorer and wildlife photographer Michelle Valberg and Turner. It aims to improve the lives of children in the North through the gift of hockey equipment. Turner estimates they have shipped $1.3 million in new equipment to northern communities thus far. There have also been trips with the Stanley Cup® across the Arctic from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to Kangiqsualujjuq, Nunavik in Northern Quebec and all of Baffin Island — with the help of Scotiabank and the National Hockey League® — which have helped inspire youth to reach for their dreams.
Project North and its partners Scotiabank and Canadian North Airlines stated this year that they are committed to ensuring hockey is welcoming and accessible to all players, no matter their race, religion, gender, ability or sexual orientation, so Connell’s ask was fortuitous and the first time a drop was for an all-female team.
“We are proud of our long-standing relationship with Project North and their efforts toward supporting communities across Inuit Nunangat (Inuit Homelands),” says Laura Curtis Ferrera, Chief Marketing Officer at Scotiabank. “We’re committed to ensuring kids from all backgrounds have the opportunity to play the game we all love. Our hope is that hockey equipment donations like this one will help to inspire youth from diverse backgrounds to explore all that the game of hockey has to offer.”
This December, the project sent a total of 75 complete sets of Scotiabank Hockey Club gear and CCM hockey equipment — skates, protective equipment, helmets, mouthguards, tape and laces — to three communities. Fifty went to minor hockey teams suggested by the air carrier in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and in Qikiqtarjuaq, a hamlet in the Baffin Region of Nunavut; the remaining 25 went to Kugaaruk.
I didn’t plan to start a women’s hockey league when I moved here
— Emma Connell, Grade 6 teacher in Kugaaruk
In past years, the Stanley Cup® trophy has joined a team from Scotiabank, the NHL® and Project North in travelling to recipient communities. This year, with COVID-19 restrictions in place to limit travel, it seemed even more important for the equipment to still make its way to the communities to provide a positive experience. In November, Nunavut went into a two-week lockdown that was lifted just as school broke for the holidays.
Turner has seen the happy children and grateful parents who couldn’t afford, let alone find the equipment their children need. He also knows hockey can galvanize a community. More importantly though, “we can be fairly certain we’ve helped youth over time,” Turner notes, citing schools that link hockey to attendance.
In Kugaaruk — a tiny community tucked between the coastal mountains and Pelly Bay, accessible only by air or sea — hockey is making a big difference for girls and young women. Women in the community who had played on Kugaaruk’s competitive all-female team in the 1990s were excited for this new opportunity for the girls to play, Connell says.
One of the big moments for the girls, Connell says, was when Natalie Spooner held up her Olympic Gold and Silver medals for women’s hockey during a virtual discussion with the new teams. “It was pretty awesome,” she says.
“You never know how impactful seeing an Olympic medal can be,” says Spooner, who at the age of 11 had her photo taken with four-time medalist Jennifer Botterill, a forward with the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team. Spooner is hoping to be out on the ice with the Canadian team at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.
Spooner, who has taken part in several Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest, was invited to travel to the North with Scotiabank in 2017. This year, she was disappointed she couldn’t make the first drop to an all-female team in person, but the reaction to her medals was a good substitute for now.
“Just like those little boys I saw in 2017 that had that dream of coming from the North and playing in the NHL and how excited they were to see the Stanley Cup; hopefully down the road we’re going to see a female hockey player coming from the North to play international hockey,” Spooner says.