How I Spent My Hockey Vacation

January 18, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

The snow was several feet deep outside the cabin in the woods near Pont-Rouge, Quebec, and the man hitching his huskies, Utah and Dakotah, to the homemade dog sled couldn't wait to get started.

The NHL may have been in the midst of a 104-day lockout, but Joe Juneau (ZHOH-ay ZHOO-noh), the Washington Capitals' star center, was not about to sit around and ponder the bleakness of a season that, at that moment, had no beginning.

"It was very good to be back there and spend part of the winter there," he said yesterday, recalling his time in Pont-Rouge during a break in the Caps' practice. "It's something I haven't been able to do much in the last 10 years or so. I count myself kind of lucky to have the chance for two months to go back to that and enjoy the winter the way I grew up."

To Juneau, life is more than a hockey puck. And to Juneau, who grew up in a family that loved hockey, yes, but also loved the other pleasures of outdoor life in Quebec, it is a philosophy to live by. During the lockout, he wasted little time proving it.

"I built myself a sled out of wood and showed my dogs how to do it, and then I'd go out with my dogs every day," he said. "It's in their blood and a lot of fun for me. Sometimes, I'd go out for hours, sometimes 15 minutes, depending on the type of mood the dogs were in and if they were tired. They're like wolves. Sometimes, they're very stubborn. You've got to make sure they enjoy it, because if they don't, then they don't want to work with you."

With only two dogs, Juneau spent most of his time running alongside the sled. "By the time I was finished running in the big boots and snowsuit I wear, I'd be sweating," he said. But when he hooked up with Quebec Nordiques defenseman Uwe Krupp, who has 10 huskies, they'd both ride with the wind.

"It's an awesome thing," Juneau said.

Lest anyone think that was the only workout Juneau was getting, hastens to add that he also was skating.

"You can't be in hockey shape unless you play hockey," he said. "The rink there was always available every morning, and I'd go with good friends or on my own and work on skills when I felt like it. It was very hard to be motivated, to work very hard, especially the last month, because it really looked like it wasn't going to happen and I was having fun.

"I started building my own plane with my dad, and we worked on it every day," said Juneau, who has an aeronautical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "It was fun to do other things. Sometimes, it was hard to take the time to go to the rink to play hockey. You really had no goals in front of you. You kind of had to make yourself believe in something that wasn't there most of the time.

"People were asking, 'Do you believe it's going to start?' I'd say, 'I don't think so.' I made plans to do other things this winter with the idea that, if hockey started, it would be good news, but if it didn't, it still was fun to be back home playing hockey for fun with guys I grew up with."

And there were so many other things to do. When he wasn't sledding with his dogs or working on the airplane and skating with friends, he was snowmobiling or playing drums for his band Off Wings in clubs around Quebec.

"Joe is a funny guy," said his longtime friend Sylvain Levasseur. "Not funny in that he tells funny stories, but funny in the way he thinks. All those projects he has going all the time -- his band, building an airplane, dogsledding, his cabin, playing drums. He is unique. Hockey is his life, but he has a lot of other projects and passions. Hockey is his passion, but Joe is very passionate in everything.

"He's still a simple, on-the-earth guy who likes being out in the woods, fishing and hunting. I can still talk to him as a buddy, not a superstar, not an idol. Sometimes, he [ticks] me off, and I can tell him that. I think he likes being told. We both respect each other and can say what we think."

The two have been friends since they were teammates for two years on the Ste-Foy Gouverneurs 15-16-year-old team in Quebec, and would spend weekends with Juneau's family in the woods.

"Joe always knew he was going to be a pro hockey player," said Levasseur, 26, a little more than a month younger than Juneau, who turned 27 on Jan. 5. "When I first met him, he wasn't the great hockey player he is now . . . but he knew what he was going to be and he focused on it. I think that's why he's where he is. He knows he can do everything. I wanted it, too, but I believe in destiny."

Levasseur is a certified public accountant in Vancouver and, like Juneau, seldom gets home anymore in the winter. But Levasseur was home for a few days this winter with Juneau.

"It was a special couple of days," said Levasseur. "We went ski-dooing [snowmobiling] and then had dinner with his parents. After that, we went out to the rink in Pont-Rouge that is named for Joe. We cleared the snow off the ice. It was just the two of us, and it was like old times. We played hockey, not with helmets and pads, but with tuques [wool hats] on our heads and his Capitals jerseys.

"That night, we both had 'Juneau' on our backs and I wore his Olympic skates," Levasseur said of his friend, a member of the 1992 Canadian team. "It was just a lot of fun and very special."

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