Hamilton

How teenage Ontario Hockey League stars survive away from home, friends and family

For junior hockey players with big dreams being taken away from home, friends and family is part of the deal. Paige Martin, the CBC's Ontario Hockey League analyst, explains how these players, some as young as fifteen, survive.
For junior hockey players with big dreams being taken away from home, friends and family is part of the deal. Paige Martin, the CBC's Ontario Hockey League analyst, explains how these players, some as young as fifteen, survive. 8:41

For junior hockey players with big dreams being taken away from home, friends and family is part of the deal.

Paige Martin, the CBC's Ontario Hockey League analyst, explains how these players, some as young as 15-years-old, survive in a new city, living in someone else's home.

Martin spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about how the young players cope with the transition while they pursue their hockey dreams. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above. 

Paige Martin, OHL columnist with CBC London
(Paige Martin)

CC: These players are mostly teenagers. How does life change when they get the call to an OHL team?

Paige Martin: Well, life is all hockey, all the time. They've all worked so hard to be able to do this but no one really talks about how much change these guys are actually about to experience. They start practicing every single day and every weekend they're playing in front of huge crowds of people on top of their normal life with their family, their social life and school. There is a long list of changes that go down each day for them and I spoke with Shane Wright. He's from Burlington, Ont. and he's a rookie with the Kingston Frontenacs. He's also the youngest player in the OHL right now because last year he was granted exceptional status and drafted a whole year earlier than when players are normally drafted. So, that means he's 15-years-old and in grade 10. Here's how he's doing. 
Shane Wright: It's awesome. And just some random family kind of accepts a player into their home and kind of treats them as their own child. It's amazing that families are doing that kind of thing. The billet situation I'm with is absolutely amazing. My billets cook for me and do my laundry at times, as well. It's pretty special what billets do and how they operate. 
Fifteen-year-old Shane Wright became the sixth player to be admitted early entry into the CHL draft in 2019, following the likes of Connor McDavid and John Tavares. (@GTHLHockey/Twitter)

PM: For 15-years-old he's managing to make out alright so far.  

CC: They're off to a new school. These teenagers will also have to make new friends. What's that adjustment like for these teens?

PM: Well, school is still an important thing for them. Shane, for instance, he only had one year of high school under his belt before he got launched into the OHL. The other rookies, they have a minimum of two years. The league makes sure that school is a priority. The players go to school in the mornings and then after lunch they head over for practice and workouts until dinner time. I spoke with Ottawa 67s rookie Jack Matier. He's in grade eleven and he left his friends and family and moved 800 kilometres away to play hockey. Here is how he's navigating school and his social life.

Jack Matier: I still talk to a lot of my friends from Sault St. Marie but I think just hanging around with your teammates... I mean, they're your family now. You're with them every day. So, just the relationships we've built there. It's just an awesome place to be. All the high school students go play at Blythe Academy and they really try to work around our busy schedule and there's a lot of one on one work with tutors and teachers there. So, that's been awesome. 

PM: Jack also admits that he's a kid who loves structure and that's what you get in the OHL. Every minute is booked. So, for him, he's thriving right now. 
The Ottawa 67’s chose Jack Matier with the club’s first-round pick, 21st overall, during the 2019 OHL Priority Selection Draft. (Jack Matier)
 

CC: Tell us about where these players are living. They've left home and are now with an entirely new family. I don't know there's any other similar environment for teenagers where they go from their family to a completely new family.

PM: It is kind of a weird transition. You're living in this brand new home with people that you don't really know. But it's also supposed to be a safe space, right? So, a couple weeks ago we talked about how important the hockey families are to making their kids dreams come true. But there's this other group of families that deserve a lot of credit. It's the billet families. They have an incredible network of people who, every season, invite a player into their homes and make them a part of their family. They give them a bed. They make room in the fridge and they make a lot of room in the fridge. They cook for them and make sure that these teenagers have a comfortable and safe place for down time. I talked to the Long family, Robby and Tracy. They've been billeting London Knights for seven years now.

Rob Long: Really what we try and do is not put any pressure on them. We kind of gauge that a little bit. Some want to be more inclusive. We'll always put it out there... let's go for dinner or let's go get ice cream or something silly like that. We try and keep more of a normal household as if they were at home.

PM: The other thing that Robbie says they do is introduce them to their friends and family and invite them to take part in their family activities. Robbie and Tracy are billeting London Knights. Alec Regula and Nathan Dunkley. Both of them were a part of their family thanksgiving last weekend. It's just different things like that to make them incorporated and feel like they are a part of the family. One of the most important pieces is that they give them a time to relax and unwind and they know when to give the players their space.

CC: How do the relationships with the billet families affect the players?

PM: It's a trusted foundation that they've built with each other. It goes both ways. The Long family says that they get the chance to help the players grow into young men and the players say that they get a second set of parents and most billet families are at every home game and that's important, especially for the rookies, who are just learning the ropes and need that extra support. Shane Wright had this to say about his first few months living with his billet family in Kingston.

Shane Wright: I call my parents every night on the phone. I'll talk to them over how my day was, how school is, how practices are... Things like that. I get to see them after every game, as well. So, that's nice. Then I'll get to see them for a week at Christmas as well. I'm not feeling too homesick or anything. 

PM: Some billet families have kids of their own. Jack Matier's family in Ottawa has two sons. He's been able to form a great bond with them and I'm sure that it's something that will last a lot longer than his time in the OHL.

CC: What goes in to the decision to become a billet family, taking on a kid that they don't know who is there just to play hockey and feeding them and giving them a safe place to live? 

PM: Well, if you are ready to take on the responsibility of helping raise an elite, teenaged athlete and you're looking for someone who's going to add a lot of energy and fun and probably a lot of laughs to your house as well as excitement and things to celebrate, there's likely a place for you to be a billet family. I think it's important to note that's great for the rookies but also for the veterans. Every player needs that safe space that the billet family has been able to create and really foster within their home for them. 
Hunter Jones, Peterborough Petes goalie, poses for a photo while getting a lesson in baking from his "billet mom." (@hunterjones.29 Instagram)

About the Author

Conrad Collaco is a CBC News producer for CBC Hamilton with extensive experience in online, television and radio news. Follow him on Twitter at @ConradCollaco, or email him at conrad.collaco@cbc.ca.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.