By SEAN MALINOWSKI
In the hockey world, a billet family is one that offers room and board to junior ice hockey players who leave their homes to play for elite teams in other towns. It is quite the opportunity for a fan of the game.
Paul Osborne, Conestoga’s registrar and associate vice-president of marketing and enrolment management, is one of those fans. He got his start as a junior reporter at a Guelph radio station, working his way up to operations manager. When an OHL franchise came to the city in 1991, Osborne was asked to do the P.A. (public address) at the games. It is something he still does to this day.
In 2000, Osborne presented the idea of billeting a Guelph Storm player to his family.
“Our boys were 8 and 10 at the time,” Osborne said. “I thought the kids would think it’d be cool.”
After getting the OK from his wife and kids, the Osbornes became a billet family. Little did they know that the young 15-year-old assigned to their home would go on to be a future two-time Stanley Cup champion. For three years, the Osbornes housed future hockey star, Dustin Brown, now captain of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.
“Fifteen is unbelievably young. He was incredibly shy and quiet,” Osborne said. “Being a teenager is hard enough, with girls, and with friends, and with school. But they also have this added pressure of playing junior hockey in front of 4,000 every week, and you have the pressure of ‘Am I going to get drafted? Am I not going to get drafted?”’
Osborne said there are multiple responsibilities that come with being a billet family.
“You have to make sure they eat well, that they eat on time, that their laundry is done. You don’t have to worry about driving them to school or practice, they have their own network of guys who do the driving.”
“You have to provide a safe environment, and you try to teach them, just basic stuff you’d teach your kid.”
A billeting family must pass an in-home interview with all family members present. They also check references and criminal records.
“You sure don’t get rich by it. I think they gave us $60 a week to cover food, which would barely cover your food for a growing boy,” Osborne said.
In the summer of both 2012 and 2014, the Osbornes got to enjoy the fruits of their billeting labour. They were invited to Ithaca, N.Y., Brown’s hometown, to celebrate his Stanley Cup wins.
“We’re with the captain, so everyone stops and talks,” Osborne said.
They’ve also visited Brown’s L.A. home, and have a good relationship with his wife who used to drive up from New York when she was his girlfriend to visit Brown during his days in Guelph.
“You get lucky enough to get a guy that ends up winning the Stanley Cup, you definitely get to celebrate that,” Osborne said.
“He (Brown) has four children all under the age of 8, so it’s really cool for me to see, having known him as such a shy young boy, and now seeing him as a father of four kids.”
Kyle Spurr was another player the Osbornes billeted. Spurr was a tough guy. The plan was to bring him in as a roommate for Brown, but Brown made the Los Angeles Kings roster as an 18-year-old, and was shipped off to the big leagues.
“Typical tough guy, just a super nice guy off the ice, very mature, he could look after himself,” Osborne said. “His parents always joked he was the youngest of four boys, and when they went away he was in charge because he was the most responsible.
“As a fighter, he’d always come home with cuts and bruises, and we’d have a big laugh about the fight he had.”
Spurr went on to play for the University of Prince Edward Island, acquired his degree, and now operates a family-run business.
“It’s a pretty rewarding experience,” Osborne said. “Both went on to have successful lives.”
Today, Osborne has some intriguing vacant bedrooms in his house.
“My daughter’s going away to school next year, so I think I’d like to billet again, but we’ll see.”