It was a humid Thursday afternoon at Drouin Field, located next to the Central Maine Civic Center in Lewiston. With the smell of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers filling the air, the billet families finally came together with the Lewiston MAINEiacs hockey team and staff – parents anxious to meet their soon-to-be billet “sons.”

As billet family parents, Gail and Leo Baillargeon of Lewiston, stood in the heat, mingling with other families and waiting for the matches to be announced.

“It’s like a junior high dance,” laughed Leo. “The parents are standing on one side, looking at the boys and wondering which is theirs, and the boys are standing on the other side, checking out the parents and wondering with which family they’ll be going home.”

As the long tables were laid with platters of assorted salads, drinks and condiments, Marc Just, owner of the Lewiston MAINEiacs, addressed the group. Acknowledging the parents’ excitement over meeting their players for the first time, he kept his welcoming message brief. Simply, he thanked everyone who had worked so hard to make the day happen. He then recognized his billet families, remarking on their generosity and assuring them this would be a rewarding experience, one they would remember for a lifetime.

When Just concluded his speech, Renee Bernier and Ron Guerin, Billet Family Coordinators, began the announcements of the billet matches. A player’s name was called along with the name of his billet family. Bernier then made the formal introductions, and so it continued until every player had his new family and each family a new son or sons, in the case of a few families who could accommodate two players.

Some of the players’ own family members had traveled to Lewiston to meet the billet families with whom their children would be living. Other players, many of whom have lived away already, were meeting their billet families for the first time on their own.

Seventeen year-old Dave Ghaleb of Montreal, Canada, appeared immediately at ease with his new family, John, Donna and Zac Racine. He smiled brightly as he introduced himself and spoke very animatedly of his family in Canada and of his background as a player. The youngest of three sisters and one brother, Dave’s father is Arabic and is an English teacher in Canada. His mother is from Chile. Although his French accent was apparent, he spoke English well.

After asking his new “brother” about his own hockey experience, Dave explained that he played Midge Triple A, the league below Juniors, before coming to the U.S. This was his second year trying out for the Junior league, though he played a few Junior games last year. He was looking forward to his season in the U.S. and asked his billet parents about the social life of teenagers here, interjecting jokes along the way.

Donna Racine appreciated her new “son’s” amiable personality. “I really like him. He’s funny and has a great sense of humor.”

Gail and Leo Baillargeon, who had just sent their youngest daughter off to college the day before, had spent the last hours before the picnic re-feathering their nest for their billet son, Kevin Turgeon, age 17. The Baillargeons have hosted kids in their home since their daughter was a year old.

“We’ve had kids from all over the U.S. as well as Germany, Switzerland and Belgium,” explained Gail. As MAINEiacs owner Just had mentioned, the Baillargeons have stayed in touch with some of the kids they have hosted. They were even invited to a wedding in Switzerland.

Their newest “son” Kevin comes from Mellocheville, Quebec. Leo communicated with him in French, translating the questions of others and answering them for him in English. Mastering the English language will be a challenge for a number of players, including Kevin.

Still, he was enjoying his U.S. experience thus far and looked forward to improving his game as he learns what it is like both playing and living in this country. Kevin has lived away from home for months at a time but never for a full year. When asked about how his family felt about having him so far away, he said as long as he was happy, safe and was comfortable with his billet family, his family supported him.

The Verge and Cliché families both agreed. If their sons are well cared for by their billet families and are happy, they too, are happy and won’t worry as much as they might. Brandon Verge of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Marc-Andre Cliché, from Abitibi, Quebec, will be sharing a home with Debbie and Greg Bourgoin and their sons, Jared and Jordan.

Serge and Annette Cliché said Marc-Andre had left home for hockey at age 15. At that time, he was only two hours away and they were able to see him more often. Now he will be twelve hours from home and they will probably not see him as often.

The Verge family was also accustomed to their son being away from home. Brandon played for the Sherbrooke Castors last season and was then further away from home, a thirteen-hour drive, than he will be now living in the U.S. As an added bonus, Maine’s landscape is very similar to the Maritime provinces.

Remarked Brandon’s mother, Dawn Verge, “Maine’s coastline, its homes are very much like what we are used to in Nova Scotia.” Additionally she continued, “Brandon’s last billet family didn’t speak much English. It will be nice for Brandon to be with a family who speaks English fluently.”

Charlie Verge, Brandon’s dad, was excited about his son’s new “home” location too. “First, we are very confident in the organization overseeing the team and making sure the boys are well cared for. The benefit of having such a great fan support in Lewiston is going to make for a positive playing experience for both the beginning and returning players.”

Brandon and Marc-Andre’s billet family, the Bourgoins, were glad to have both sets of parents present so they could all meet one another. Says Debbie, “I was hoping the boys’ parents would be here. We’re going to go back to our house after this so they can see the house. They don’t need to worry. We’re going to take good care of them.” She mentioned that they have Internet access at home, a tool for helping keep both families in touch with their children.

As for Brandon, 18, and Marc Andre, 16, neither are nervous about being in a new country and both are looking forward to the season ahead.

“I’m looking forward to living in a new place where the culture is more like my own,” smiles Brandon, “and I’m happier that there will be a little more English being spoken here.”

Most of the players at the billet picnic all hoped their experience in the U.S. would give them a leg up on their NHL dream. Most of the parents understood the sacrifices their children were willing to make to attain that goal and were doing everything they could to support them. On the Lewiston homefront, billet families were standing at the ready to do their part to help their “sons” along in their journey. As one billet parent was overheard saying, “The hard part will be loving them then sending them back home.”

Spoken like a true parent.

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