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Billet families: The backbone of major junior hockey

By Iain Colpitts on February 25, 2016

The Skubels, Jo-Ann and Ted from Niagara-on-the-Lake, with current billets Alex Nedeljkovic (Right) and Josh Wesley (Left) from the OHL's Niagara IceDogs. (Kate Warren Photography)

Mathew Campagna moved far away from his Mississauga home when the Sudbury Wolves drafted him fifth overall in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection Draft.

It can be a difficult move for a 16 year old, but fortunately, Fabio Belli and his wife Sue welcomed him into their home, making the transition a lot easier.

“It was great having a family like Fabio and Suzie welcoming me into their home and letting me act like it’s my home as well,” said Campagna, now in his first season playing for the University of Toronto. “That’s a huge thing with billet families, letting them into your home and welcoming them like you're their own son.”

Fabio in particular had a lasting impact on the former Wolves playmaker. He became a mentor and a second father, someone Campagna could go to anytime he needed advice or a friend to talk to.

So when Fabio died of a heart attack in April of 2014, Campagna felt it would be too hard to go back to Sudbury knowing his billet dad wouldn’t be there. He was traded to the Plymouth Whalers for his overage season.

“When he passed away, it was just a thing where it was hard to go back to and not have him around,” Campagna said. “Fabio treated me like I was his one son. He had two daughters and I was his one son. They just try to make you a better person and I can never repay them back for what they did.”

Campagna will always remember the good times, such as staying up late watching the Edmonton Oilers (Fabio’s favourite team) while talking about how the Wolves and some of their rivals were doing.

In his role as a city councillor, Fabio would often push for the construction of a new arena that Campagna thought would have given the city the same atmosphere as popular OHL markets like London, Guelph or Kitchener.

Although he recorded 68 points in 2012-13 and 71 the following year, Campagna struggled with consistency at times and Fabio did his best to help in that regard.

He even sent him to local boxing coach Gord Apolloni, who coached Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games, to get in better shape.

Of course, when it was time to move on to Plymouth, Campagna quickly grew attached to his next billet parents, Rasa and Glenn Poorman.
They helped him adjust to the United States and he knows he can always call and talk to them if he needs anything.

Billet families are the backbone of the junior hockey world and as Campagna said, they welcome players into their home as if they’re members of the family.

That’s the point Jill Saxton, billeting coordinator for the Niagara IceDogs always emphasizes with potential billet families.

“I cried when each of mine left just like they were my own children,” said Saxton, a former billet parent herself. “It becomes a very big connection. These boys are living with these families, depending on how far they go into the playoffs, it could be up to eight or nine months of the year. You go through the emotional roller coaster with them.”

Saxton has been involved with the organization since the IceDogs moved to Niagara in 2007. She gets to know each potential billet family well and also gives their homes an in-depth inspection to make sure it has the appropriate living space and other amenities a player would require as well.

And of course, she makes sure each family goes through a police background check every five years.

“I ask myself if I’d put my own son there, and if I wouldn’t put him there, I wouldn’t put anyone else’s son there,” Saxton said.
All but four IceDogs live with billet families over the course of the season.

Among the families in the region are Karen and Brent Pym and now in their second year as a billet family, housing defenceman Ryan Mantha. They’ve always made sure he feels as comfortable as he can be.

“It just makes them feel a little bit more at ease,” Karen said of the experience. “When we’ve gone away, my mom has made meals and stuff and Ryan now calls my mom grandma. She brings him her chocolate chip cookies and especially if he’s got a road trip, she gives him a nice, big bag to share with the guys. It’s been really rewarding, I can’t say enough about it.”

Having Mantha in the home has helped fill the void in the Pym home after their youngest of three children began university this year.

Fellow Niagara billet parents Jo-Ann and Ted Skubel have formed several close bonds through their six years as billets. They originally became interested in billeting when their son Dylan wanted to have players around.

 


Kate Warren Photography

 
In fact, the players they’ve welcomed into their home have grown so close with the whole family that former billets Darren Archibald and Dalton McGrath were both in Dylan's wedding party when he got married recently.

While the thought of moving in with a new family sounds like it would be an adjustment for both the players and the billets, Jo-Ann said it helps if the billets are outgoing.

“Everyone we’ve had have all been in the system or been traded and been around teams, so they were all comfortable with it and easy going,” Jo-Ann said.

 “When we had Darren and Dalton, Dalton’s mom had been a billet for years, so we heard her talk about it before and she was giving me the lowdown on how to handle it, so it’s been very helpful that way.”

At the end of each year, the IceDogs give each billet family a framed picture of their billet sons and the Skubel’s proudly have a wall of all 12 of them.

They started out the season with Zach Wilkie as their billet child before he was traded to Sudbury in November. Two weeks later, the IceDogs acquired Alex Nedeljkovic and Josh Wesley in a blockbuster trade with the Flint Firebirds and the Skubels welcomed them into their home.

Billet families are just as vital in the WHL considering the vast distance between teams in four provinces and parts of the United States. A teenager could be moving from Winnipeg to Vancouver to play and in the case of imports, the separation from home is even greater.

Rene Rondeau is a video producer and video scoreboard operator for the Red Deer Rebels, hosts of the upcoming Memorial Cup.

When the call was put out for more billet families four years ago, he was happy to sign up and it’s been nothing but positives for him, wife Dana and 11-year-old son Calder, who Rene says went from being an only child to having about five or six brothers, including current billet Rylan Toth.

Rene has learned to cherish the experience because it goes by quick.

“When you’re doing it, it’s pretty much a blur. Time flies for these guys and you’re in the hockey world with them as well,” he said.

“There are so many stories that are more memorable after the fact and you celebrate what they’re celebrating after. For example, (First billet Turner Elson) won the (Kelly) Cup with the Alaska Aces two years ago, so we were pretty proud of what he achieved and now he’s (with the Stockton Heat) and is an assistant captain.”

While Rene said the family lives vicariously through their billet children’s accomplishments, they sometimes live through their pain too.

He remembers seeing Elson get cut wide open after a fight and seeing part of his skull before he was stitched up.

Going further east, Julia and Vic Tanner have been involved with the Peterborough Petes for 12 years and have housed countless billets over that time, including current Petes Matt Timms and Zach Gallant.

As a nurse at Peterborough Regional Health Centre, Julia remembers when one of the doctors on staff one evening, who happened to be on the Petes’ board of directors, mentioned the team was looking for more billet families.

Julia was interested, but didn’t think she and Vic would be eligible since they lived outside of Peterborough in nearby Keene.

It turned out that wasn’t an issue and it’s been a fulfilling experience ever since.

“I get so attached to these kids. For example, we had our Pink in the Rink game (recently) and our very first billet (Jeff MacDougald) was one of the honorary chairs,” Julia said.

“He and I keep in touch a lot. We were discussing it and he’s the same age now as I was when we started billeting. I find now that the boys stay the same age, but I get older. Our first year, I was more like a big sister than a mom, but now I have that mom role.”

Since their first year as billets, Julia got a Petes tattoo and has added the jersey number of each player she has billeted around the logo.

The Tanners are longtime seasons ticket holders and in the past 19 years, Julia has only missed one home game while she was in the hospital.

Maureen and Paul Harris-Lowe thought billeting would be a good way to get involved in the Peterborough community and great for their children when they were younger, so they’ve been involved for 10 years.

Their first billet was former Petes captain and OHL humanitarian of the year Jack Walchessen, who stayed with the Harris-Lowe's for his entire five-year stay in Peterborough from 2006-11.

Just like they thought, Walchessen was a positive influence on their son Doug, who’s now a year older than current billets Eric Cornel and Steven Lorentz.

The family has learned a lot about life as a major junior player and it has helped put their lives into perspective.

“Seeing them come in at 16, grow into young men and how well they do with their careers and how they handle things, it’s taught us that it’s not an easy ride,” Maureen said.

“There are a lot of ups, but also a lot of downs. It’s been a great experience that way and it’s taught us that life’s not easy even though a lot of people think they live these great lives. A lot of them wish they could be off at university doing what normal kids do.”

Maureen pointed out that billet families are often welcoming more than just the billets into their homes. At times, their families and teammates come to visit as well, so parents need to be prepared for that.

As an example, the family recently had the entire team over to watch the Super Bowl. Cornel and Lorentz were kind enough to clean up afterwards of course.

Like the Harris-Lowe family, Oshawa’s Glenda and Al Duncan wanted to give back to the community and had also welcomed exchange students from Switzerland into their home in the past, so they felt billeting would be a good experience too.

Eight years ago, they welcomed former Generals goalie Kevin Bailie into their home and have since billeted imports Nic Jensen and Alain Berger as well as Cody Payne, Michael Dal Colle and Stephen Desrocher before Dal Colle and Desrocher were traded to the Kingston Frontenacs earlier this season.

To show how close they’ve become to their billets, Jensen spent last Christmas with the Duncans and Berger’s grandparents, brother and sister visited them from Switzerland when Berger was a General.

From the parent’s end, Dal Colle’s family gives the Duncans gifts at Christmas time as well as money to take the family out to a nice dinner, while Al and Bailie’s dad go hunting and fishing together.

Glenda has some important advice for anyone interested in becoming a billet.

“They have to go into it not thinking that they’re going to be a kid’s best friend,” she said. “You need to treat them like they’re part of the family. The team makes the rules and you have to support them as much as you can.”

“I’ve seen this over the years, a lot of people want the contacts and connections to be able to say so and so was at my place. I totally don’t think you should go into it if you’re going to take that route.”

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By Iain Colpitts| February 25, 2016
Categories:  Major Junior
Keywords:  OHLWHL

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