Billet families are the backbone of junior hockey. You can’t have one without the other.
That is especially true in the Ontario Hockey League, where a majority of players move away from home to live with another family during the hockey season.
“It’s one of the most important aspects of junior hockey,” says Colin MacDonald, assistant general manager of the London Knights. MacDonald is in charge of organizing and setting up the team’s billets.
“They’re at home more than they’re at the rink, so I think having the right support systems in place for our players only helps their development, on the ice and off it.”
Including the team’s affiliated players, the London Knights have 27 young men who are currently set up with a billet family.
The McGonigals are just one of the Knights’ many billet families. They currently host Luke Evangelista and Connor McMichael at their home in north London. Previously, they had Robert Thomas and Nicolas Mattinen in their home.
Evangelista is from Oakville, Ont., and McMichael hails from Scarborough, Ont.
From the family’s perspective, providing a home to the hockey players has changed their lives for the better.
“It’s brought us so many good relationships, not just with the boys that come and stay here, but with their whole family as well, everyone sort of becomes one big family,” says Kevin McGonigal.
Joining the family
Shortly after making the decision to welcome Thomas and Mattinen into their home, another decision was made to add yet another family member to the McGonigal’s home. Only 25 lbs at the time, their friendly great dane named Taylor is now well over 100 lbs.
“It’s pretty cool, it’s definitely a cool experience that not everyone gets,” says Owen McGonigal, 15. “I’m an only child, so it’s pretty cool to be able to experience all this stuff with people similar to your age.”
Owen, who is living with a form of muscular dystrophy, still keeps in touch with Thomas and Mattinen, even getting to visit with the pair following their OHL Championships. He got a picture with the Stanley Cup a year later.
“It’s like they become your family, you live with them for the majority of the year, it’s been great making memories with them,” says the elder McGonigal.
Navigating the ‘ups and downs’
A big part of what billet families do, other than provide food and shelter, is support the athletes during their many ups and downs.
For the McGonigal family, that included a pair of trades during the 2017-18 season, which happened to both Mattinen and Thomas.
“You know that trades happen, but until you experience it for the first time you have no idea how emotional and how devastating it can be to go through, for the player, for us, for their family,” says Angela McGonigal.
Mattinen was traded to Hamilton while Robert Thomas was still at camp with the St. Louis Blues. By the time he was returned to the Knights, his billet roommate was gone.
Months later, Thomas was also dealt to Hamilton, and the pair went on to win the OHL championship.
“There are definitely a lot of ups and downs, there’s highs and lows, this is not an easy career these guys have chosen,” says Angela McGonigal.
“You come to recognize their body language pretty quickly, the way they walk through the door, and you just try to adjust and support them. If it’s a high, then you want to figure out what that’s all about and celebrate and share with them. If it’s a low, that’s probably a night we’re not going to talk much about hockey, and distract them with some other fun things.”
The Thomas trade was an especially emotional time for the family, coming just days after he won a goal medal with Team Canada at the World Juniors.
“We’re coming off a high of Robbie winning a gold medal at the world juniors and then being traded, those 72 hours were just a whirlwind,” said Kevin McGonigal, adding that part of the deal also saw the Knights add a young rookie from Hamilton.
That rookie, Connor McMichael, ended up being the next member of the McGonigal family.
McMichael finished the season living with the McGonigal’s, and found out during the off-season that the Knights’ newest draft pick, Luke Evangelista, would be his roommate going forward.
“I was there my rookie year by myself, then over the summer Kevin and Angela texted me and told me they would be bringing Luke in, and I was pretty excited about that,” McMichael said.
The pair met during a summer skate, and hit it off right away.
Evangelista finds it very beneficial to have someone like McMichael as a roommate.
“Last year was a tough year for me, and he had gone through something similar the year before,” Evangelista said, adding that he’s been able to lean on McMichael for advice during his draft year. During the 2019 draft, McMichael was selected in the first round by the Washington Capitals, Evangelista is eligible for the 2020 draft.
Does anyone eat more than a teenager? How about ones that are on the ice almost every day.
“Oh they eat a lot, some more than others, but it’s almost a full time job keeping the fridge stocked and making sure there is always good food in the house,” says Angela McGonigal. “I think between the two of us we hit a grocery store seven days a week.”
What about the classic staple for hockey players, chicken and pasta?
“We try not to do it too much, game day it’s chicken and pasta, but we try to stay away from that for the rest of the week and give them some variety, we mix it up with some good healthy food, I know they don’t like quinoa, but every once and a while there’s a quinoa meal in there,” Kevin chuckled.
The team holds a nutrition seminar to go through what the guys need calorie-wise to sustain themselves through the season.
Becoming a billet
The McGonigals were familiar with how billet families work because they both have older brothers who played junior hockey.
“We both had the experience of visiting our brothers and their billet families, so we kind of had a sense of what it was like from that perspective,” says Angela McGonigal. “I think we still may have greatly underestimated the amount of work it takes to keep the household functioning with all the extra players.”
They first looked into billeting following the 2014-15 season, with a little encouragement from their son Owen.
“It was hot off the heals of a great playoff run by the Knights when Owen started taking an interest in the Knights, and Kevin saw a social media post that the team was looking for billet families, Owen convinced us and put us up to it and we sort of went from there,” she says.
There is usually a long line of families interested in billeting, but the reality is, not every family or home is a good fit.
MacDonald says they have an extensive interview and vetting process with the families before they send a player to a home.
“There’s a pretty long and involved process from the team side in order to make sure we’re bringing in the right people, but I would say most times when we make those house calls and meet with people, they’re people who want to be involved for the right reasons, and that’s the big thing,” says MacDonald, adding the team keeps an open line of communication with the family, and the player, to make sure things are running smoothly, and everyone is comfortable with the set up.
That includes their actual parents as well.
“We want to make sure they understand it’s co-parenting, that they’re not just dropping the kid off for the billet to raise, we want both the family and the billet family involved.”