By Tina Comeau
Matthew Bracegirdle had just turned 17 years old the week he came to Yarmouth to play for the Mariners.
He was both apprehensive and excited. After all, this was his first time away from home.
What he quickly discovered, however, was that a home was awaiting him here in Yarmouth, thanks to the billet families who take in the Mariners.
In Bracegirdle’s case, he was taken in by Kelly and Tony White and their son Alex. He says the bond was instant.
“It was almost as if I had known them all my life and it wasn’t really a new experience,” he says. “It was, ‘Welcome’ and we’re just going to continue on as if you were a part of the family.”
Bracegirdle was a goalie for the Mariners from 2004 to 2006, but when he left Yarmouth he never really said goodbye to his billet family. Now, nearly 10 years from that first day he arrived in Yarmouth, his relationship with his billet family is as strong as ever.
“We talk on a weekly basis. Kelly was our emcee at my wedding and their son Alex was in my wedding party,” he says. “In a fun twist of fate, Tony White just happens to be taking a month-long course in Halifax and the tables have turned and we (Matthew and his wife Laura) are actually billeting him for the month while he takes the course, reversing the roles almost 10 years later from when they first took me into their home.”
Asked if there will be rules for Tony to follow, Bracegirdle laughs.
“He was the more stern one of the two of them down there, so Tony was always the one to have the serious conversations with me about the door can’t be closed if you have girls over and stuff like that,” he says. “That was one of the first things we joked about when we decided he was coming here. I told him I was going to take the door off his room and no school mates could come in without my permission.”
Laurie Barron, the head coach of the Mariners, says the team could not survive without the billet families.
“Basically your whole year, whether it be a positive one or a negative one, comes down to that,” he says. “Good billets make you feel like you’re part of the family, and you stay in touch with them the rest of your lives.”
Barron says there is no question that it’s hard for players and billet families to part at the end of a season, or at their end of a player’s junior A career. “And the better billet family you are, the harder it is,” he says.
Fortunately with social media, beyond just the telephone, it makes it easier for players and billet families to stay in close contact nowadays, compared to when the team first came to town. But one thing that hasn’t changed are parents sending their sons to a community, counting on others to take care of them.
Yarmouth residents Patti and Gerry Verran have billeted a lot of players. Their first billet player was goalie Charles Grant who lived with them for three seasons. Derek Larade lived with them for two seasons.
Since players come and go, the Verrans have seen more than their normal share of billets this season, which includes four players that were here but have since moved on, mostly due to trades.
“Now we have Danny Wicks and Connor Donaghey. They are both from St. Johns, NL and we love them,” says Patti Verran. “Connor also lived with us the first half of last year so the kids were really excited to have him back.”
Verran says the players definitely do become a part of your family, especially those who stay for an extended period. And Verran says it’s not just the players that you become attached to.
“We’re planning a trip to Newfoundland so we can visit our NL families,” she says. “It’s not only the boys you get to know. You meet their parents and sometimes girlfriends or grandparents.”
Verran says billeting players has brought benefits for her two younger children Bradley and Brenna.
“My kids really look up to the boys. They’ve all treated our kids great. They play hand hockey with them most nights. Some have helped them with homework,” she says. “We make a point of all sitting together for supper. The conversations and healthy eating habits of the boys have been a great contribution to our family.”
As for goodbyes, Verran says they’re never final.
“I look forward to them letting us know how they’re lives are going and any big events in their life for sure,” she says.
While some families have been billeting Mariners players for years, others are new to the program, like Angie and Robert Saulnier’s family who started taking in players this season for the first time. Some were only billeted for tryouts. Another player, Jordan Messenger of Shelburne County, went back home to play with the South Shore Midget Mustangs. He still gets a ‘Good luck’ text from the Saulniers before his games.
The Saulniers have Shawn Boudreau and goalie Anderson Snair living with them. Angie Saulnier says sometimes it can take a few weeks for everyone to get used to each other but from the get-go she tries to make the players feel comfortable.
“I want them to feel as if this is their home and feel comfortable enough to live it like they are at home with their own families,” she says.
“They are part of your family, and not just the players themselves, but their family members too,” adds Saulnier.
“I have sent pictures, texts and have even had a few phone calls with parents and siblings. How can you not keep them updated about how their boys are doing? Not everyone can get to all the games all the time so some days it is a game update or just a funny thing that happened at home that we want to share. And it works both ways. I have been on the receiving end more than once of a game update, homemade muffins, or just a ‘Thanks’ for having their boy.
“In the end, they are all someone’s son and as parents, we just want to know that they can reach for their goals and be happy doing so,” says Saulnier.
As for Matthew Bracegirdle, he’s happy to be returning the favour by billeting his former billet dad. And he is thankful for his everlasting relationship with his Yarmouth billet family.
“They’ve just been such an influential part of my life,” he says. “Ten years later it’s the same thing. I can go down there to Yarmouth, sit on their couch and watch TV as if I was still living there as a 17 year old.”
Anyone interesting in being a billet family for Yarmouth Mariners players next season can contact Patti Verran. Aside from being a billet mom, she is also the Mariners’ billet coordinator.
“I’m organizing it now and doing a matching process,” she says. “I want to match up families with players that want to live with kids or single people that are interested in billeting with maybe a player that would rather not live with kids. Or billets that want to have a player that does or doesn’t go to school. I have an information packet for anyone interested.” The team also often needs billet homes during team tryouts.
Verran can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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