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Gamblers players enjoy their billet experiences

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part series on the experience of billet families and players coming to
Green Bay to play high-level junior hockey with the Gamblers. Part I on the parents’ perspective ran in
the Aug. 5 edition.

By Greg Bates
Sports Editor

When Josh Dunne made his NHL debut last April, he received plenty of congratulatory messages.

Friends, family members, former teammates and coaches all were excited Dunne had accomplished his dream of getting to “The Show” with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

A couple messages that really stood out to Dunne came from Green Bay. The two billet families that Dunne had stayed with during his three seasons playing with the Gamblers had reached out.

That was special for Dunne, just a few years removed from playing juniors.

“These people supported me so much and they did so much for me,” Dunne said. “They’re a big part of my career and where I am. I’m obviously thankful for the time I had with them and I had a great time when I was with them, and I owe that to them.”

Dunne still keeps in close contact with Mark and Michelle Lampereur, who he lived with from 2015-17, and Carol Krueger for the 2017-18 season.

When Dunne moved to Green Bay, it was the first time the O’Fallon, Mo., native had lived away from home.

“It was definitely different,” Dunne said. “I was 16 when I left. It helped me mature pretty fast and quickly. I had a great experience with my years in Green Bay.”

Dunne said the Lampereurs were wrapping up their time as a billet family, that’s why he didn’t stay with them his final year in Green Bay. Dunne always felt welcome with every family he stayed with.

“That was the nice part about the billets is they kind of made you feel like home,” Dunne said. “It wasn’t like you were living by yourself. They helped you along the way, so it was good.”

During the prime of his teenage years, the billet families helped Dunne develop into a man.

“Definitely the part of the maturity, I think that was obviously the biggest part in kind of helping me and being there for me if things were tough, because it was a different environment for me as a young kid,” Dunne said. “But I think just supporting me too and realizing that people care, because sometimes things don’t always go well when you’re away from home and you’re a little nervous. It’s nice to know that you have people that care about you.”

Jesse Tucker also had a great billet experience during his three years living in Green Bay. Now entering his sophomore year at Michigan State, Tucker wouldn’t change anything about what he learned and how he developed on and off the ice during his time with the Gamblers.

For the Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada native, moving to Green Bay at 18 was a completely different transition. Tucker had lived away from his family since he was 14, but this move to another country where he didn’t know a soul.

His billet family of John and Dina Braun quickly made him feel at ease in his new home.

“Moving to the United States was obviously a big change for me, but then just moving in with (the Brauns) really solidified everything for me,” Tucker said.

“We talked about all the stuff they want from me and we just talked about everything and worked it all out,” Tucker said. “Basically, they just said, ‘Tell us where you are, tell us the truth and everything will be good.’ And we never had a problem.”

Because he was out of high school, Tucker — who was with the Gamblers from 2018-21 — hung out at a lot of billet houses.

“We did a lot of billet dinners my first and second year before COVID hit, so we got to meet a lot of billets there,” Tucker said. “I got really close with a lot of billets, so I met a lot of them and they’re all nice people and a lot of my teammates that lived there said good things as well.”

“I think our billet program’s probably one of the best in the USHL, personally. I think just being a part of Green Bay for three years, the fans are very passionate about it. You give a little bit back to them and they give you everything.”

Placing the players

While scouting players, former Gamblers coach Pat Mikesch got to know the young guys well.

When it came time to place them in housing, he had a pretty good idea what his players are like. After 17 years as the Gamblers’ housing coordinator, Lynn Des Jardin knows the billet families well. Every June, Mikesch and Des Jardin would sit down to place the players with the appropriate families.

“We kind of talk about, well, do you think this kid would be a good fit with this family?” Des Jardin said.“Other than having to move a few kids this year, we’ve been pretty good at placing the kids. We really try to place them in a house that’s going to be successful for everybody.”

Over the years, the Gamblers have had a really good track record with placing players.

“The biggest thing we always try to stress to our players is understand that they have their rules and their way of living and we have to be willing to adapt a little bit as well into a setting,” Mikesch said. “It’s one of those things, my July is probably about two days a week sorting out who’s going to live where and finding out who has allergies and who’s allergic to dogs and if the player is going to come with a car and if he doesn’t have a car, I’ve got to put him with somebody who has a car. It’s a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle and once it goes together, the rest of the season flows pretty well.”

Since players can come to Green Bay while still attending high school or they might already be graduated, each kid requires different needs.

Every high school-aged player attends Ashwaubenon High School. Back when the Gamblers originally worked out a deal with Ashwaubenon, it was the only area high school that used a block schedule. That allowed hockey players to be able to miss the final block for practice or to travel to games.

“Ashwaubenon High School has been wonderful to work with the team/players to make this happen,” Des Jardin said. “The school did request that the players stay until graduation if they were seniors, which we have tried to honor in the past but I know a few that have left as soon as the season ends. With the players attending virtually, things may have changed a bit.”

Dunne attended Ashwaubenon for two years and earned his diploma. He said the facility at the school was always understanding of the players’ schedules and always helped them succeed.

“It was really a seamless transition, because they obviously knew what we needed and it worked out well and it’s a good school,” Dunne said. “I had a really good time there.”

‘Second parents’
Since Dunne and Tucker both lived in Green Bay for three years, their relationships with their billet families became strong.

Both players can’t thank their families enough for all the unconditional support and help they received during their time away from home.

“They’re great people and now I think of them as my second parents. I’m always down there visiting them,” said Tucker about the Brauns. “I’ve got a really close connection with them, so they were always there for me when I needed someone. They were always my go-to people, so it was awesome. It was different, but I loved every minute of it. They made it that much better.”

Dunne feels the same way.

“They made me feel like I was at home, that I didn’t have to be somebody who I wasn’t,” he said. “I was able just to go and focus on what I needed to do in school and hockey.”

Des Jardin, who was a billet herself prior to becoming the team’s housing coordinator, loves hearing the success stories where players and families continue to stay in close contact years removed from living together.

“It’s amazing, and, honestly, that’s one of the things that really sells the new billet families,” Des Jardin said. “We housed for six years and had three different players — two of them we are still very close to. We’ve got invited to weddings. It’s amazing. They become a real part of your family.”

Along with Tucker’s relationship with his billet family, his biological parents built a bond with the Brauns.

Whenever the Tuckers traveled to Green Bay, the two families enjoyed going to dinner together.
Tucker loves still being in touch frequently with his “second family.”

“I think they appreciate it as well,” Tucker said. “Obviously, they’ve had a lot of players go through their house and I was one of the only players there that was there for more than one or two years, so we built a strong connection. It’s super nice, because if I can’t talk to my parents, they’re my second parents. I can call them any time and they’ll be there for me. It’s a cool bond we have, for sure.”

With aspirations of making it to the NHL, Tucker knows he’ll receive plenty of more continued support from the Brauns.

“If I ever make it one day, I know I’ll see John and Dina in the stands for sure,” Tucker said.

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