Behind the scenes of junior hockey are billet families that are feeding, supporting and cheering on the NHL’s next in line
By Joshua Kloke
With the end of another hockey year, most fans fret over their team’s shortcomings and begin the long wait for next season.
Yet the end impacts some on a much more personal level than others: fans such as Lori Bowman, longtime billet for the OHL’s Guelph Storm. Bowman and her husband, Blair, open their house at the start of every season to young Storm players who need the comforts of home away from home and the support to endure the demands of junior hockey.
Eventually though, like clockwork, the snow melts, the season ends and players return home. And it never gets any easier for Bowman. “It is heartwrenching,” she said. “The house feels empty.”
Bowman, who billeted defenseman Garrett McFadden this season, is just one of thousands who serve as billets, welcoming young men not only into their homes but also their lives and families. It’s not a chore for Bowman and other billets. More often than not, the family connection begins with treating newcomers as they would treat their own. “We try to eat as a family throughout the week,” she said. “It’s important to sit down and connect.”
The requirements of a billet family, according to many OHL teams surveyed, are quite simple: provide a player with his own room and furniture, complete his cooking and washing in return for a nominal sum and usually a pair of season tickets.
The foundation of a strong billet family, however, is building connections that last a lifetime. “Players should feel supported and have someone to talk to,” said Lori Page, a Peterborough Petes billet of eight years who recently housed defenseman Connor Boland. Page added it’s necessary for players to feel someone’s “got their back.”
When billets welcome players into their home, they also bring the dramatic highs after a promotion to the first line or the crushing lows of being a healthy scratch. Junior players often struggle through the tough reality that hockey is a business.
It’s a reality the most seasoned pros understand but one that can lead to wild mood swings for young players compounded by normal teenage pressures. “We try not to talk a whole lot of hockey,” Page said. “We try to make them feel like hockey’s not the only thing they’re going through. There’s a lot going on with them as teenagers.”
For many of these teenagers, major junior will be the highest level of hockey they ever reach. But there are some who continue to the NHL and become stars in their own right.
No one is more familiar with these requirements than Bob Catalde, billet parent to Connor McDavid. Catalde projects an affable and garrulous demeanor, insisting that while he’s always been a hockey fan he had never considered being a billet parent until a mutual friend of Erie Otters GM Sherry Bassin asked if he’d be interested in housing McDavid.
Echoing what many have said about the young phenom, Catalde calls him “supremely focused” and said he has never seen the pressure impact McDavid. “He has just an unbelievable ability for a teenage young man to handle what would be an enormous amount of pressure for everyone else,” Catalde said.
There’s no denying the pressure these young men face. But when these billet families are questioned on what the biggest challenge is for them, the answer is the same: keeping these growing athletes fed. “We haven’t had a lot that are big vegetable lovers,” Page joked.
Catalde agreed: “There’s some vegetables I have to force (McDavid) to eat. I try to hide them in with other stuff.”
So what does the billet dad, and self-confessed cook of the house, prepare most for hockey’s highest-rated prospect? Turns out McDavid is a creature of habit and his game-day meal shows shades of Michael Phelps’ calorie-heavy diet. “They’re always the same: he eats roughly eight scrambled eggs with fresh berries and whole grain bagels on game days,” Catalde said. “His pre-game meal is grilled chicken breast with brown rice and quinoa.”
Dinners are Catalde’s specialty, but that’s only the bare minimum of what is required of him. For players like McDavid, who will go on to dazzle the hockey world or for those whose careers may end after junior, the time spent with billet families is as important to their growth as any other. It might not be part of the contract, but these families know it. Perhaps, as Catalde leads one to believe, that’s why they sign up in the first place. “I want to make the best place possible to help him reach his goals.”
This feature appears in the Draft Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.