The interviews for this story were conducted during training camp. The billet picnic was the first meeting of players with their initial billet families. However, it was known prior to the picnic, and announced again at the event, that there were still cuts to be made during the exhibition games over the weekend following the picnic. Since the writing of this story, some of the players who went home with their billet families after the picnic have now returned to Canada, while others are now residing with new families.

By Donna Keene Rousseau

Sun Journal Staff

With players’ health and well being of primary concern to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, it is no wonder the Billet Family Program plays such an integral role in the success of Lewiston MAINEiac hockey in the community. The willingness of local families to open their homes to individual players, who are far from their own families, not only assures a smoother transition for the young men but also illustrates perfectly the building of community relationships that reach beyond the threshold of business.

Ron Guerin and Renee Bernier, Lewiston MAINEiacs Billet Family program coordinators, have spent the last several months interviewing potential billet families for the young hockey players making this community their home away from home.

“There was no selling of the idea involved,” smiles Guerin, who visited each interested family personally. “The people I interviewed were enthusiastic about the program before I arrived and were ready to welcome a player into their home.”

As part of the education process, once billet families were selected, Guerin and Bernier coordinated an informational meeting to introduce the hockey staff ,including the team’s general manager and coaches, and to review rules and address questions and concerns of the families.

According to Guerin, his best advice was more a reminder. “Families must remember a teenager will be residing with them. Consequently, there may be issues surrounding the girlfriends, the use of phones – the same issues that arise with any teenager.”

Setting the stage for their player early on is the number one “rule” for billet families. Household rules should be discussed up front.

“Each player knows what is expected of him,” explains General Manager, Norm Gosselin. “He knows if he is to continue to play for the team, he must respect his billet family and abide by the rules. Disrespect will not be tolerated.”

While billet families receive a small monetary stipend to help with the cost of adding a person to their household, perhaps their greatest support comes from the network of managers, program coordinators and coaches who maintain primary responsibility for the players. If any problems or concerns arise, billet families or the players themselves can count on the hockey staff to help.

John and Donna Racine of Lewiston, one of the 23 billet families, particularly like the idea of a team nutritionist who will work with them to help their player maintain a diet for optimum health, strength and endurance.

“Life can be very hectic and too often it’s easier to just make something quick. This will be good for all us,” says Donna, who admits she is always looking for new ways to prepare healthier meals. “I hope we’ll all learn to eat better, especially Zac.”

Zac is the Racines’ 13-year-old son and one of the primary reasons John and Donna thought it would be fun to have a Lewiston MAINEiac player come to live with them.

“We want Zac to see what can happen when you set your mind to achieving something,” explain John and Donna. “Whether that be to one day play in the NHL, go to college or own your own business, we want Zac to see. If you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do anything.”

For Zac, it’s not about learning to eat healthier or working toward a goal that excites him about his new billet “brother.” It’s the idea of sharing his home and his life with someone who might someday actually play in the NHL.

“It would be cool if he made it to the NHL,” smiles Zac. “Then I could say I knew him and that he had lived with us when I was growing up.”

Admittedly, John and Donna think that would be cool, too. Even more, they like the idea of forming a bond with their young man, a relationship that will endure even after he has returned home.

“My friend, Jeff Guay, played in the juniors and he still maintains a close relationship with his hockey “mom,” Rose. In fact, it was Rose who gave us her perspective on what a potential relationship could become. In her lifetime, her family welcomed more than 19 junior players in their home,” John points out.

The Racines are now hard at work finishing a family room in their basement. Both agree a teenager needs space to entertain friends and may not necessarily want to sit and watch television with the parents. The plan is to have a small workout area in one section with a sitting area and television in the other.

“It will just make for more room to spread out and provide better quality of living for everyone,” Donna noted.

Making life comfortable and sharing a comfortable home are what being a billet family is all about. For John, Donna, Zac and all the families in the billet program, sharing their lives is just one simple way they are doing their part to help out, making a difference not only in the lives of their players but in the future of their community.

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