The OHL’s Guelph Storm has always prided itself on being a close-knit family.
And like many families, there’s a whole network of people – sometimes in the background – that provide support and encouragement, and who keep the whole organization running.
Guelph’s team of billet families has been selflessly taking on some of those important responsibilities, helping prospective professional hockey players adapt to life with the Storm.
They’re called families for a reason, Kasey Schwemlein, who has been billeting players for a few years, says.
“It’s all about the little things,” Schwemlein said. You have dinner together every night, and when they're not feeling well, you're caring for them, almost as a mom would.”
Having a “safe place to fall” is an important piece for the young players, Schwemlein said, of the many who are away from home for the first time.
“Knowing that it doesn't matter how well you did on the rink that day, or how well you played in that game, you're going to come home, and you've got a feeling of security in that safe place,” Schwemlein said.
Connections run deep with the billeting players, too. Schwemlein says she keeps in touch with the players – and their families! – long after their season is done. They also keep track of their successes as they move on in their hockey careers.
But like any family, there’s sometimes some bumps in the road.
Schwemlein said her family’s first experience with a billet had a bit of a heartbreaking experience. Her first-year player, Jacob Maillet, was traded mid-season, leaving an empty room in her house, and a bit of a void in the family.
“It’s something that the team tells you about when you put up your hand to volunteer to billet,” Schwemlein said. “They tell you that it is possible that your player gets traded and that it happens very quickly.”
In Schwemlein’s case, the family found out at 1:00 pm that Maillet had been traded, he came back to the house, packed up his things and was back at the rink by 4:00.
“We actually picked my son up from school because we knew he would want to say goodbye to Jacob,” Schwemlein said.
“There were some tears and then we reconsidered the whole thing. This is hard, and do you want to get attached to somebody who could potentially leave?”
“But even with the tears, my son said ‘nope, we need to do this again.’”
Trisha Gibbons has been billeting players for several years, and got her start after fellow season ticket holders shared their own experiences.
With some extra room in her house, Gibbons thought it might be an interesting experience to host players. The Gibbons family currently billets two – defenceman Brayden Hislop and goalie Damian Slavik.
Slavik, from Slovakia, has been an extra-fun addition to the house, Gibbons said.
“He's learning a lot about our country and our foods and that sort of thing,” she said. “I’m glad we got the opportunity to have an international kid. It's been a joy having him for sure.”
She added that families considering adopting a billet for the season shouldn’t hesitate if that player comes from overseas.
“Don't hesitate at all,” she said. “They're so happy to be here.”
“And it’s an extra bonus in my mind, because you're getting to know someone from another country, and you're getting to introduce them to ours.”
Like other billeting families, Gibbons said the connection she’s made with the players – and their own families – lasts a lifetime.
She continues to text the players, and their moms, throughout the year.
“We keep in touch and the boys like to reach out for Mother's Day and Christmas,” she said. “It's just really nice. They become part of your family and you become part of theirs.”
She’s even visited players’ homes during the summer to celebrate birthdays and participate in family barbeques.
“When [former billet] Zack Terry took his turn to have the cup, we all went to their place and had a big barbecue and we all got to take a picture with him holding the cup,” she said.
“It’s like you’re part of one big family.”
Melanie Mohr, Ticketing and Office Manager with the Storm, emphasized that getting the right community members on board keeps the organization running smoothly.
“From a team perspective, we wouldn’t be able to put a team on the ice without the wonderful families who don’t just open their homes to players, they open their hearts,” Mohr said.
“The players truly become part of their family (and they also become a part of the player’s family).”
“I have been honoured to be included in the process of meeting interested families to share information about our program, placing players with them and then watching the relationships grow (both while the player is with the Storm and after they have left Guelph and moved on to the next phase of their lives),” Mohr said.
“It truly takes a special family to do this and at the Guelph Storm we are incredibly lucky and proud to have such a special group of families!”
And being part of that extended family means that those who share their homes also get the chance to share special experiences with the players.
Amanda Robinson was able to share in a special moment with Danny Zhilkin.
“I was there Danny signed a professional contract with the Winnipeg Jets,” Robinson said, referring to the 2022 draft. “We were able to share that, since he wasn’t with his family.”
“When they’re sharing your home, you’re really a part of their family, so you get to share in special moments like that.”
“But that’s what you’re there for, you’re there to help them through life for a little while, and they become a part of your family. “
But prospective families should also be aware, Robinson jokes, about how much the players can eat.
“Be prepared to feed them,” she said. “They’re young men and they can eat a lot.”
“I’ve made pasta at midnight and I’ve made pasta at 7:00 am before a road trip.”
But all in all, the players remains a great presence in the house. Especially if there’s younger kids who can glean a bit of inspiration from the OHL’ers.
“These players are great role models,” Robinson said. “Guelph does a great job drafting good young men. And it’s nice to have them be able to show others what kind of commitment it takes to be in the OHL.”
That commitment includes the sometimes gruelling practices, road games, and the public outreach players participate in.
“Until you billet, you don’t understand how much of their time is scheduled,” she said. “From practice, school work, community involvement, and games, it’s pretty incredible how much they’re on the go.”
As for waiting for the next opportunity to billet a young Guelph Storm player, Robinson said it doesn’t require any consideration.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We’d absolutely do it again.”
For more information on how to become a billet family for the Guelph Storm, visit their website by clicking here.