North America’s ice hockey’s system of player development is, like some other sports, characterized by a set of values and principles in which the ultimate goal is professional or, at the very least, highly competitive participation at the national and international level.
It’s a system that calls upon young athletes to dedicate their lives to the sports they love, sometimes at a very young age.
In hockey, the system calls upon some young players to leave home to pursue their dream. It’s not uncommon for children as young as 14 to be sent to academies or teams where they will dedicate their lives to the game, sometimes away from their homes, families and parental guidance during their formative years.
At the Junior A level, the Victoria Grizzlies are a part of that billeting system and, although the NHL is a goal for many of the team members, they are also playing for the opportunity to be scouted for NCAA teams and the potential of a scholarship to any of a number of highly ranked universities in Canada and the United States.
Last year, 11 of the team members were successful in obtaining scholarships.
While the Grizzlies have an excellent track record with their billeting system, as a whole the system is not devoid of problems.
In 2014, Terry Trafford, a player with the Saginaw Spirit, committed suicide in a tragedy that led most Junior A teams to ensure that they now have mental health professionals available for their players.
While the Grizzlies have never had those sorts of problems and take great care to ensure that these situations never arise, it’s still a system with which head coach Craig Didmon has felt some discomfort with.
“I think there’s a lot to be said that kids should stay in their home towns, play Junior B and graduate from high school before they are picked up by a team in another part of the country, away from their families. They should stay at home as long as possible,” Didmon said.
That’s particularly true when the team takes responsibility for younger players. Didmon’s team and others at the Junior A level regularly have one or two players who come to the team as 16 year olds, a situation that is most challenging for the teams Didmon noted.
But the Grizzlies coach acknowledged the difficulty in that approach as well. It’s simply not always possible, he said.
“You have a player like Alex Newhook – an incredibly talented player who has every possibility of advancing in this game – who would not have the opportunity to play at the level he needs in his home in Newfoundland. For him, it only makes sense to leave home to follow that dream,” Didmon said.
Newhook is currently being billeted with a family that has taken in three Grizzlies and the now 17 year old (he came to the Grizzlies at 16) is staying with two teammates who are 20 years old.
It’s a situation Sheryl Williamson, co-ordinator of the team’s 14 billet families, said actually helps keep the younger player focused and provides him with role models that help him through the experience.
When any of the players from other parts of the country arrive in Victoria, they are housed by a group of billet families that take in as many as three of the players and, hopefully, become a surrogate family to the young athletes.
“It’s really a pretty positive experience for us. It’s the second year that we’ve billeted players and it’s great,” Williamson said. “We have Lucas Clark this year, along with Carter Berger. They’re really great guys, and we have no problems with them at all. The fact is that most of these players are extremely focused and they know what’s at stake.”
That’s not to say that there are never any problems.
“From time to time, we have a billet and a player who just don’t mesh well – where a personality conflict happens and they call me in and we get them back on track. Sometimes it means moving a player to another billet where there’s a better fit,” she explained
Berger credits the billet system for a lot of his own success. “These are great people who open up their homes and really make us a part of their family. If you have an issue and just need someone to talk to, they’re always there for you and that’s really important,” he siad.
“I don’t know that I would have been as successful in the game if I didn’t have that kind of support from my billets. The mental side of things is that, if you don’t have someone to come home to or just hang out with, it’s really hard to keep focused and positive, especially if things are hard at times.”