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Opinion: In Light of Sexual Assault Revelations, Are Billet Families At Risk?

In the wake of Reid Boucher’s sexual assault charges, and the ongoing discussions regarding sexual assault and abuse in hockey, protections can no longer be a one way street. It’s time to consider the safety of billet families, writes Ian Kennedy.
Hockey Puck

In the wake of Reid Boucher’s sexual assault charges, which involved a 12-year-old minor who was part of his billet family, and the ongoing discussions regarding sexual assault and abuse in hockey, protections can no longer be a one way street. It’s time to consider the safety of billet families.

Billet families have long been celebrated in Junior hockey across Canada and the United States. They provide a home away from home, feed players, cheer them on, and become a primary source of emotional support in the lives of the players who live in their homes.

In exchange, these families are compensated financially, and receive season tickets.

Recently, the hockey world came to learn that Reid Boucher, a former NHL forward, sexually assaulted the 12-year-old daughter of his billet family.

While the billet program is vital for keeping teams running, and players on the ice, it has flaws. For many hockey players, it becomes an environment with little supervision, and fewer rules. And as the world recently learned, there is also a risk for the billet families of inviting a stranger, indoctrinated with decades of hockey culture, into their home.

Within Hockey Canada’s billet guidelines, attention is paid to inappropriate relationships between hockey players and their billet families.

The Hockey Canada Player Billeting Resource Package states, “No sexual contact will take place between visiting players and hosting players, the host family, or those who live with the host family.”

These relationships have been glorified by many for decades, despite the abusive and often illegal power dynamics involved. This issue was celebrated in the 1986 hockey film, Youngblood, where star Rob Lowe, who plays an elite Junior hockey player, as described by writer Bill Simmons, “sleeps with his den mother – Miss McGill – who became every junior hockey player’s fantasy for the next 20 years.”

Simmons ranked the movie the 57th best film on his “Sports Guy's Top Sports Movies” list, and touted another scene involving a family member of team staff. He described Lowe’s co-star Cynthia Gibb, who played the teenage daughter of the team’s head coach as “cute in a "I'm so happy to be in this movie that I'll take off my top and throw myself into the sex scene" kinda way.”

He goes on to say, “Unlike the typical wet-blanket sports-movie girlfriends, she's pretty likable in this one, despite the fact that she apparently borrowed her haircut from a woman's softball coach.”

From the moment this movie hit the screen, inappropriate relationships between players and their billets, and the children of team staff became normalized.

In real life however, much of the focus on abuse in billet family relationships has been discussed from the angle of player safety.

In 1983-84, convicted pedophile Graham James, was recruiting players for the Winnipeg Warriors of the WHL. One such player James placed with a billet who had been convicted of seven counts of gross indecency and one count of buggery. His charges stemmed from the 1978 abuse of six teenage boys.

The billet, a man named Edmund Oliverio, would soon make sexual advances toward the player in his care as was outlined in an affidavit filed with the Ontario Supreme Court of Justice as part of a class action lawsuit related to abuse and harassment in the Canadian Hockey League.

"I think it is shocking that the team would billet me with a convicted pedophile, chosen by another pedophile and that the team did not believe me when I complained," the unnamed player stated in the affidavit.

The player brought his concerns to the general manager of the team, and instead of listening to his concerns, the general manager threatened the player.

“He said I could get in big trouble for bad-mouthing such a prominent member of Winnipeg society,” his statement reads. “He told me I should be grateful to have such a billet and that I should keep my mouth shut, or I might lose my place on the team.”

The placement of players in dangerous situations is not isolated to this incident.

In 2012, Robert John Paolinelli was convicted of sexual exploitation of a teen hockey player in Spruce Grove, British Columbia. Paolinelli was a long time billet.

In the OHL, the league’s longest-serving billet, Neil Joynt, who hosted players for the Kingston Frontenacs and Kingston Canadians for 33-years, was convicted of multiple sexual offenses in 2018.

Joynt, who hosted his last player in 2004, was found guilty of two counts of indecent assault against a teenage male in 2016, and not guilty of a separate charge stemming from an alleged sexual assault. He was sentenced in 2017, but in 2018, won an appeal and was found not guilty of his charges based on an error the trial judge made in court, not on the absence of his actions. Joynt billeted multiple NHL players during his tenure with Kingston, including Tony McKegney and Drake Berehowsky.

Joynt did not see himself as a risk to the teenage boys he was hosting. Rather, he saw himself and his family as a replacement for their own parents. “We were like surrogate parents to them,” he told the Ottawa Citizen at the time.

In an ideal world, according to OHL Commissioner David Branch, who served as the longtime president of the Canadian Hockey League, billet or host families are exactly that; a safe, loving substitute for their own families.

“A family environment, a healthy family environment,” he said of what billets should provide to players in the OHL. “The billeting program is one of the pillars of the player experience when playing in the OHL.”

To ensure player safety, billets are screened by individual teams, and must adhere to league guidelines.

“The billet families, the billets themselves go through a screening process including a police check. The players’ parents are involved in the process, they’re invited to have an opportunity to look at the home that’s being proposed to make sure it’s the right fit for their son. That’s one of the key steps when looking at the billet environment.”

While the vast majority of billet experiences are positive, sometimes these teenage players slip through the cracks.

“I left home when I was 16 years old to go play in the OHL,” wrote ex-NHL player Rich Clune for the Players Tribune. “Right away, the culture of drinking and machismo in Junior hockey starts to weigh down on you. We were drinking in bars after Sunday night games at 16.”

Clune dealt with decades of addiction and depression. While playing with the Sarnia Sting, he also endured hazing. He was under the guardianship of coaches, and a billet family, but not his own parents. Stories like Clune’s are all too common.

While concerns of player safety, according to Branch, are always addressed, the recent revelations related to Reid Boucher’s sexual assault of a minor who was part of the billet family, raise questions of another kind.

Is there concern for the safety of the billet family?

“From a player standpoint, we do not require police checks on our players, we rely on the system that these players are involved in before coming to our league, and that’s largely minor hockey programs. If there should be a red flag that comes to our attention, obviously we’d look into it and make sure it’s communicated to the team and all interested parties,” said Branch.

Most players enter the Ontario Hockey League and their billet programs as minors, meaning police checks would not be possible. Other protections however, which could be in place, are not. The CHL mandates coaches, GMs, and billets take the Respect in Sport training, but players have no such expectation.

According to Branch, if the OHL had known of the crimes of a person like Reid Boucher, who joined the OHL’s Sarnia Sting in 2011, only months after assaulting his victim, Boucher would not have been welcomed into the league.

“If there’s allegations you would want to firstly make sure the allegations are accurate, in such a situation that’s described here, such a player would not be welcomed to our league.”

Despite this statement, the OHL admitted Montreal Canadiens draft pick Logan Mailloux this season although he was charged with defamation and offensive photography in Sweden after he took and distributed a sexual photo of a woman without consent last year. His suspension from OHL play lasted less than half a season.

Explicit rules exist related to player conduct, including for behaviors related to substance use, as well as assault and abuse, but it does not mean these rules protect the players. Nor do they protect billet families.

Players like Reid Boucher, who would go on to be drafted by the New Jersey Devils, exist in the OHL. The fact the league, and the Sarnia Sting claim to have had no knowledge of Reid Boucher’s crimes should be concerning for billet families.

“We were as surprised as everybody else. Obviously, nobody knew about it,” Sting president Bill Abercrombie said of Boucher’s offenses prior to joining the organization.

Even if a player enters the league without a criminal record, players can still be a threat to those around them.

In 2013, then Windsor Spitfires forward and fellow New Jersey draft pick Ben Johnson was charged and convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl in the bathroom of a Windsor bar. Johnson was sentenced to three years in prison, but not before he could make his professional hockey debut with the AHL’s Albany Devils, and following his release, he returned to pro hockey with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.

At the time, Johnson, along with Windsor Spitfires teammate Jordan DeKort were under care of their billet, Fran Vernes, who testified in the case. Vernes billeted Johnson for three years, and had been a Spitfires billet for twelve years. “I was like a mother to them,” she stated at Johnson’s trial. On the night of his crime, Johnson and his teammates went to the bar, became intoxicated, and Johnson sexually assaulted an underage woman. On the stand at the trial, Vernes, who described herself as “loyal” to Johnson, tried to discredit her other billeted player Jordan DeKort by falsely representing statements by DeKort about the victim. In the end, her testimony fell apart, and Johnson was convicted.

The risk to billet families, specifically those households with children, still exists. Families are welcoming a stranger, who is being removed from their traditional family setting. Junior hockey teams across Canada acknowledge the challenges this poses for a player. As the BCHL’s Prince George Spruce Kings billet page states, “It’s never easy for a young man when he leaves home for the first time.”

West Virginia University researcher John Sturges echoed this in a study examining the social and emotional impacts of playing Junior hockey: “Junior hockey and its relocation practices have the potential to significantly impact an individual’s development by means of exposure to unique social and interpersonal challenges.”

The placement of a player in a household with minors is common, as many Junior teams attempt to mimic the environment these players are coming from to ease the transition.

“In many cases where the environment of the billet home somewhat reflects the environment where the player is coming from, if he has brothers and sisters, you try to match that environment up if possible,” said Branch.

This could explain why most Canadian Hockey League teams across Canada collect age and gender information of youth in the households of potential billet families.

The Kamloops Blazers however, a team in the WHL, list a restriction related to billet homes having daughters. Their website states “Any daughters residing in the home must be under 13 years of age.”

In standardized packages outlining the “Core Standards” for WHL billets, as seen in the publicly available documents from the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Swift Current Broncos, they clearly state, “Homes with teenage girls are discouraged.”

While the statements could be benign, the fact it places no such restriction on male inhabitants of the home raises questions. Namely, what are they concerned about? And why can’t the teenage boys being billeted in a home be around teenage girls?

Perhaps leagues and teams are concerned not only about the people being tasked with looking after players, but about the players themselves. There is reason for concern.

In 2012, three Soo Greyhounds players - Mark Petaccio, Brian Cousins, and Andrew Fritsch - were charged with sexual assault. In 2013, Saginaw Spirit defender Dalton Young was charged after assaulting his girlfriend, and stabbing her father. The OHL’s Jake Marchment and Greg Betzold were suspended for comments they made to women on a dating app in 2014, attempting to procure sex from other users.

“It’s because you’re so ugly and on tinder we all thought it would be easy,” Marchment wrote, attacking a woman who had denied him. “I hate when dirt balls try and be hard to get like you’re a dirt ball just sleep with me.”

In 2016, OHL goalie Michael Giugovaz had sexual assault charges laid against him. The same year, the OHL launched its “OHL ONSIDE” program, which aims to bring awareness to issues of assault, abuse, and the need to respect women. The extent of the program, however, is only a two-hour workshop each year. Also in 2016, members of the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques found themselves embroiled in a pair of sexual offences. First, a half dozen players were involved in an indecent sexual act in a restaurant washroom, followed by four Gatineau players being accused of sexual assault later that year. In 2021, Nicolas Daigle and Massimo Siciliano, members of the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigers were similarly charged with sexual assault.

While CHL teams and players get the most attention, sexual assault is prevalent across Junior hockey. In 2011, the CCHL’s Gloucester Rangers hosted a rookie party, which ended in multiple sexual assault accusations. Two years later, Mitch Vandergunst of the GOJHL’s Stratford Cullitons was sentenced to a year in prison for a pair of sexual assaults. At a 2015 party held by the OJHL’s Cobourg Cougars several women were allegedly assaulted as part of a contest between players to see who could sleep with the most women.

These are the known accounts.

While these offenses occurred outside of the home, Reid Boucher’s did not. In the billet-player relationship, concern can no longer be focused solely on the player, the billet family must be considered. According to OHL billet coordinators, complaints of player behaviour and misconduct are not uncommon, in fact, there are typically multiple issues that require team intervention each season.

As one OHL billet coordinator, who requested to remain anonymous stated, “All billet families are reminded… that they are de facto parents for these young men, not to tolerate any breaking of rules either team-based or criminal.”

As the recently released report commissioned by the CHL to investigate abuse within the member leagues stated, however, a “code of silence” exists when it comes to off-ice misconduct.

The report continued to state that “a lack of a clear protocol to follow when reporting, investigating, and disciplining events” is also present across leagues.

Sexual assault is an issue of concern in Junior hockey, and it’s not just the players who are at risk of abuse, it’s the families inviting these athletes into their homes. 

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