Stephen Gibson is currently in his second full season on the blue line for the Steelheads

With the Steelheads, it’s all part of the hockey family

Billets are key to success of many young players in the Ontario Hockey League

The Shaw and von Richter families fell in to the world of junior hockey billeting – and couldn’t be happier they did.

Billet families are an integral part of the Ontario Hockey League and the Mississauga Steelheads, housing players on a long-term basis for the entirety of a season or short-term when they are trying out. The Steelheads have 14 families housing 16 players for the 2015-2016 season.

Owen Tippett is in his rookie season and has been staying with the Shaw family Dave, Barb and their daughter who have been billeting for 10 seasons after being somewhat tricked into joining the business.

“We actually did it by mistake,” said Barb. “Our first player was Matt Caria and the billet family that he was with was having some issues I think with travelling a lot so he asked his uncle if he could look into a new billet family and he called us.”

Her husband Dave had gone to school with Caria’s uncle, who had originally thought to ask Dave’s grandparents, but asked him and Barb instead.

Since their inaugural season in 2007, the Shaw family has seen the team change a few times from the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors to the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors and now the Mississauga Steelheads, and have had mostly positive experiences with their players.

A scary moment was in 2008 with Swedish player William Wallen who had begun to become disoriented and vomited during the Mississauga St. Majors’ opener. At first glance it was thought to be a bad headache but doctors quickly realized that he was experiencing a brain aneurysm.

“William’s injury was so bad that they didn’t know if he was going to live or die for a long time,” said Barb. “They did two operations to try and unblock it and they didn’t work. So they thought he was going to be a vegetable.”

Wallen’s mother was in town for the game and also stayed with the family. He recovered fully and was back with the Shaws and playing for the Steelheads by January.

The Shaw family are in their 10th season serving as billets. (Jessica Patton/Toronto Observer)

For the family, the chance to be billets provides them the experience to watch their players grow up, especially when they get someone for multiple seasons like when they had Jordan Mayer.

“The fact that we’re providing a service that’s valuable for the kids and we get to watch them grow up,” said Barb. “It’s kind of neat, I think, to see these kids, like with Jordan from when he was 16 with the exception of one year, all the way until he was 20.

“We had him for his entire career.”

A veteran billet family like the Shaw’s has taken notice of the exceptional job assistant manager Jan Egert has done this year managing the program. A key aspect of the billeting process is communication between player and family but also between them and the Steelheads.

“I think Jan’s communication has been terrific,” said Dave. “There have been some issues in the past of people not really knowing what’s going on, but they’ve definitely stepped up and addressed it, congratulations to them.”

A preliminary phone interview is done to attain any pertinent information needed, an in-home inspection takes place where Egert can see if it is a good fit for the team and the final step is to match a player with the proper family.

“It becomes like a chemistry experiment at this point, trying to match players with families,” said Egert. “For example, if a player lives on a farm at home, he typically prefers a busy environment. If a player is an only child coming from an urban centre; he may prefer a more quiet home.”

For first time billet Dominique von Richter, and her family, who house defencemen Stephen Gibson, the process has been a smooth one. They had lots of billet families in the neighborhood and when she heard the Steelheads were looking for additional ones, she sat down with her husband and three children and quickly decided to do it.

The von Richter's, in their rookie season as billets, welcomed Stephen Gibson into their family right away
The von Richter’s, in their rookie season as billets, welcomed Stephen Gibson into their family right away. (Jessica Patton/Toronto Observer)

“Its kind of strange when you go into it because you don’t know who you’re going to get, but we love Stephen, he’s been amazing,” said von Richter. “He’s a very mature kid for his age, he’s a wonderful guy, he’s been amazing with the kids, he pretty much feels like one of our kids by this point.

“He’s got his head on right in terms of focus so that’s been really nice for the kids to see someone who is going for that professional sport. He’s been a great role model for them.”

Gibson is in his second full season with the Steelheads and immediately felt like part of the family.

“Right from the start, they were great,” said Gibson. “I guess a little bit of a feeling out process because it was their first time but we just went over what to do for meals, help around the house, expectations.

We just talked first week and we’re in a great routine now, I feel like part of the family now.”

It has been a unique experience for the family, one that they are unsure they could repeat with a different player because of how attached they’ve gotten with Gibson.

“Now that we know him, as long as he’ll be playing here, we would have him for sure,” said von Richter. “Beyond that, I am not sure-you get attached to someone, I am not sure if we would be able to do it again.”

Both families have become Steelheads fans and make it to most of the home games. When you have a relationship with one of the players on the team as they have with their billets; they develop a new outlook when watching.

“You’re watching it from the perspective that you’re actually interested in how someone is doing,” said von Richter. “You’re invested in wanting them to do well.”