Finding home away from home
Dedicated billet families are secret to Vancouver Giants' 10 years of success
By Elliott Pap, Vancouver Sun
November 6, 2010
Vancouver Giants forward, Marek Tvrdon of Slovakia, enjoys his morning coffee with the team's billet coordinator Elaine Larmour and her husband Allan.
Photograph by: Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun
In his 10 years running the Vancouver Giants, general manager Scott Bonner always faces the same two questions when trying to recruit a player to his team and league. Surprisingly, neither question is about hockey.
"The families have done their research on that part," Bonner said, relaxing in his office at the Ladner Leisure Centre. "They know who Don Hay is, they know who I am, they know where Vancouver is. So the two biggest questions are about schooling and the billeting system. Where their son is going to be living is very important to all parents. The moms -- and it's always the moms -- are nervous until they come to training camp and meet their son's billets in person.
"Billets are vital to our franchise. They become like step parents. They're going to be leaned on for advice and they're another support network when mom and dad can't be there."
As GM, Bonner is mainly responsible for securing players and turning them over to coach Hay, who develops them into a team. Billeting he leaves in the hands of others. Ladner homemaker Elaine Larmour is the Giants' billet coordinator and she works closely with Peter Toigo, the Giants director of team services.
Bonner and Hay want their players happy and content when they come to the rink, hungry for on-ice success but not hungry because they weren't properly fed by their billets.
"Our philosophy is once the hockey season starts, everything else should be in place," Bonner noted. "If there is a problem with where the player is living, we like to settle all that before Sept. 1."
FIRST-TIME HOCKEY MOM
Elaine Larmour was never a hockey mom. Her son James played baseball and soccer but, because he was an only child, she was intrigued by an ad in the local paper asking for people to billet players for this new junior team, the Giants, starting in 2001.
She thought perhaps this would be a chance for James to have a 'big brother' and talked it over with her husband Al. It didn't hurt that her neighbour Roy Toigo, older brother of Giants majority owner Ron, was talking up the new franchise.
"So we decided to give billeting a try," she explained. "Our son was 11 at the time and I always felt bad that he was an only child. I thought this would be a great opportunity for him to have another body in the house and have a chance to partake in going to the games. But, really, I went in blindly. I had no idea what it would be like.
"I thought it would be more like having a boarder and a good example-setter for my son but I was totally wrong. The players became like family. It is amazing how they fit into your life."
In the Giants' second season, Larmour became billet coordinator, responsible for finding the billet families, interviewing them, setting the ground rules and matching the players to homes where she felt they would be most comfortable.
All families are required to live in either Ladner, where the Giants train, or Tsawwassen, where the high-school age players attend South Delta secondary. Each family gets a monthly food allowance from the team -- this season it's $425 per player -- plus a pair of season tickets and two 10-pound boxes of chicken breasts from one of the Toigo family companies.
Food, stressed Larmour, is paramount when she meets with a family interested in joining the billet program.
"When I interview these people, I ask them 'do you know what you're getting into?' because they need to have a well-stocked fridge," she said. "I tell them the evening meal for the player has to be prepared by them. The players are busy all day and the last thing they should be doing is making Kraft Dinner. I don't think they realize the importance of having the food ready, proper food, and lots of it."
The players are expected to do little chores around the house and observe certain rules. At the Larmours, for example, Elaine lets the players know that the only female allowed upstairs (where the bedrooms are), is her. She prefers to do the player's personal laundry herself.
"I don't want them throwing two articles in a full washing cycle," she stated. "It's totally up to each billet family what they want the players to do around their house. Obviously we don't want them climbing ladders and cleaning the upstairs windows. I know a lot of billets have their player loading or unloading the dishwasher, setting the table for dinner, clearing it, putting out the garbage. You know, minimal things.
"At my house, one of the things I want is them bringing in the empty garbage cans -- and not just walking past them at the end of the driveway. That used to drive me nuts."
GOOD FAMILY FIT IS KEY
Not every billeting arrangement works out, of course. Sometimes the player doesn't like the food, sometimes he doesn't mesh into the family. Bad fits, they happen.
"I try to find out what I can about the new players coming in," said Larmour, who often takes the European imports and was billeting Slovak Marek Tvrdon until this week. "We take into consideration if they are a quiet kid, an independent kid, whether he comes from a large family and loves being around children, whether he likes pets, that sort of thing."
When an arrangement isn't working, Larmour will quickly hear about it, either directly or through Toigo or assistant coach Chad Scharff. She has a billet waiting list and can shuffle the player to a new house if necessary.
"I've heard all kinds of reasons why they want a change," she said. "Sometimes they'll say the food isn't exactly what they want. Or there isn't enough food. There have been instances where young children won't leave the player alone, they wouldn't let him sleep in and were jumping all over his bed."
Toigo tells the story of a player who wound up in a house where the billet's son expected him to be his constant video-game-playing companion. The only problem was the player wasn't a video-game player.
"It was kind of awkward," said Toigo. "But the player was only a temporary guy so he toughed it out."
Rarely do the billeting problems rise to the general manager's level. Bonner has complete faith in Larmour and doesn't get involved if a player isn't folding the laundry properly, or committing some other minor faux pas. However, if the player tries to sneak a girlfriend into the house or is being disrespectful, then he'll react.
"There are usually three issues that bring us in," Bonner explained. "Schooling, disrespectful issues and girlfriends. In a lot of cases, the biggest challenge that faces the billet is when a player has a serious girlfriend. They always try to push the envelope, like most teenagers do, because they are just teenagers."
Craig Cunningham is the Giants captain, a Boston Bruins draft pick and the leading scorer in the Western Hockey League. He is a special player on the ice but at his billet house -- he lives with the Whitty family in Tsawwassen -- he receives no special treatment. He has one chore he must complete, or else face the wrath of billet mom Bianca Whitty.
"Craig has his own bathroom and I instil in him that the bathroom has to be cleaned at least once a week," she said. "If I check it, and it isn't done, he goes downstairs and does it immediately."
Cunningham also helps out with the vacuuming and dishwasher duties. It's his third season with the Whittys and he is like a son to them. In fact, he is living in the room formerly occupied by their oldest son, who has moved out. There is a still a daughter, 21, and another son, 14, at home.
"Craig is just one of the kids," said Bianca. "What's funny about him? He's very forgetful. He puts his keys down or his wallet, walks away and has no clue where he put them. We laugh a lot -- and a lot of the time it's at his expense."
Cunningham is from Trail but has spent summers with the Whittys as well while training at the Giants' Ladner facility. He loves the food, the family atmosphere, everything about it. He even enjoys the good-natured tongue-lashings when he doesn't perform to expectation in a certain game.
"Oh yeah, they let me know," said Cunningham, smiling. "Sometimes I like what I hear and sometimes I don't. Even when I have a good game, my billet dad will sometimes give me a little bit of heck and I'll tell him: 'You never played the game so I'm not listening.' I can't say a bad thing about it. I've had a great experience with my billets. They do a great job and, without billets, we wouldn't have the junior hockey team we have now."
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