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Gamblers billet program creates a special bond

By Greg Bates
Sports Editor

Kevin Warych has always enjoyed attending Green Bay Gamblers games and watching the up-and-coming talent on the ice.

Four years ago, Warych’s wife, Melissa, heard the Gamblers needed billet families — housing players who move to Green Bay to play for the team.

The Warych family wanted to become involved with the Tier I junior hockey organization.

“I was a little apprehensive at first because you’re taking in somebody, you’re responsible,” Kevin Warych said. “It’s more than providing a house and food. Some of these players are so young, and they’ve never lived away from home and their parents are scared. You’re trying to ease the players and make sure he feels comfortable and trying to help the parents sending maybe their first child away that’s never lived away from home at ease.”

Players can be on a USHL (United States Hockey League) team from ages 15-20 for up to three years.
That first season, the Warychs took in Toronto native Nicholas Zabaneh.

The 17-year-old was moving to a different country and had to finish high school.

“You ride the highs and the lows of a hockey season,” Kevin Warych said. “You hopefully have more highs than lows, but it was interesting. You learn, you learn about hockey, you learn about their lives, you learn about junior hockey because junior hockey is not professional, but a close second to professional sports. Then you build a relationship with them and you’re sad to see them go. There were many tears shed when all players leave, because you know they’re not coming back. But they’re going on to greener pastures and they’re going onto what they want to do, get into the college hockey scene and hopefully get a pro contract.”

That’s the life of a billet family.

Eight years ago, John and Dina Braun thought they would try billeting.

“We didn’t know hockey at all,” John Braun said. “I had never played. Neither of us knew it, and we figured it was a good way to learn. The best way to learn is when you’re sitting at the dinner table with them and you can ask all these stupid questions. So, we spent the first two years asking a lot of stupid questions.”

The Brauns, who live in Allouez and don’t have kids of their own, said they enjoyed the experience so much they have continued with the program every year since.

The first player the family housed was Mike Houle in 2014-15.

“He trained us how it’s all done,” Braun said. “He said, ‘You’ve got to do this and this. You’ve got to put all this stuff away.’ He had a lot of players over. He educated us on that. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know how long we would have lasted.”

The Brauns have lived vicariously through the players who are staying with them and said they get joy in watching the successes of their players.

“We were fans of going to games before that,” Braun said. “If you’re a billet compared to a fan, the wins are higher and a loss in your house is more depressing after because the players live with you.”

House rules
Billet families don’t receive many guidelines set forth by the Gamblers.

When a player comes to a family, house rules are set.

Families are required to provide dinner for the players.

Families, which receive a small stipend from the Gamblers, also have to have a room available for a player and a garage stall is a bonus.

“You don’t do it for the money,” Warych said. “You don’t do it for anything other than you live in the hockey life like they are. It takes it to a whole other experience.”

The Warychs decided to house two players last season because their oldest child got his own place and the family had an extra bedroom.

The Warychs’ youngest son, Brayden, plays hockey for the Jr. Gamblers.

A talented skater, he’s become a better player through his interactions with his family’s billet players.
“He looks up to these athletes as professional athletes,” Warych said. “All the players have connected well with the family – it makes it that much more worthwhile.”

Repeat families
Lynn Des Jardin started billeting in Green Bay for six years before becoming the Gamblers housing coordinator.

In her 18 years in that role, she’s experienced it all.

“When we have new people, I always tell them, ‘I’ve been there. I know the questions you’re going to have and the issues that come up, because I was a housing parent to begin with,’” Des Jardin said. “I always tell them, ‘There’s nothing I haven’t heard yet. If there are problems, let me know.’”

Over the years, Des Jardin has gotten to know the billet families well and works with the coaches.

They’ll sit down in late summer, compare notes and match families with players.

“We’ll talk about which kid would be a good fit with a certain family,” Des Jardin said. “Other than having to move a few kids (last season), we’ve been good at placing the kids. We try to place them in a house that’s going to be successful for everybody.”

Des Jardin said she finds out some billet families tend to like having younger players in their house, while others like players who are older and more responsible.

Des Jardin figures that each year about 85% of billet families housed players the previous year.

She said having so much consistency in the program is key, but new families are always welcome.

“A lot of them have returned for years to billet,” Des Jardin said. “The potential new billets will email me, and I send out a questionnaire at the beginning to see if we can use them. Then I will set up a home visit. I go visit them to get a feel for the family and if the house is going to be acceptable, where they live.”
Des Jardin makes sure the sleeping arrangements will work with a player having his own bedroom and bed.

“A lot of the players come from families where they have younger siblings and they’re good with that,” Des Jardin said. “Some of them say, ‘Nope. I don’t want any more kids in the house.’ So, we keep notes on the families and try to make the best possible connection we can.”

Lifelong connections
It’s not uncommon for billet families and the players they house to become close.

After a player leaves the Gamblers, many families keep in touch with their players and track their moments from college and hopefully, to the professional level.

“We still stay in touch with all of them,” John Braun said. “It’s a neat community. Hockey players, their world is a lot smaller than any other sport.”

The Braun family is close with Jesse Tucker, who played for the Gamblers from 2018-20.

The Gamblers’ career assist leader is now playing at Michigan State.

Tucker, who moved to Green Bay from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, still visits the Brauns as much as possible and texts regularly.

“I’m amazed they remember because you know they’re going ahead in their career down the road and this was a pit stop for them,” Braun said. “When they remember you as they move on in life, it’s great.”

The Warychs said they are also tight with all of the players they have housed.

“You look back and you’re like, I helped him get to where he needs to be,” Warych said. “In life in general, I think everybody needs help from somebody to get where they want to be. For Melissa and I to provide a home for these players to live here, to excel at hockey and to get to the next level they want to be at is rewarding. Regardless of hockey, regardless of college or any professional contract, it’s the relationship you develop with these kids that are going to last for a lifetime.”

Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part series on the experience of billet families and players who come to Green Bay to play high-level junior hockey with the Gamblers. Check out next week’s paper for a story on the players’ perspectives on the billet program.

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