Nearly 10 years have gone by since Mike Brennan crossed the threshold of an unfamiliar house occupied by total strangers in a town he had never been to before.
At age 16, Brennan left his home in Smithtown, N.Y., to play at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. But he would soon find that this wasn’t a journey he’d have to make on his own.
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Away from his family for the first time, Brennan was matched with Mary Jean Raab and John Boyer, his new billet parents, who would help guide him during a key point in his development as both a hockey player and a person.
Like most of the 46 NTDP players displaced each season by their aspirations to take their game to the next level, Brennan found himself in need of a stable living environment. And billet families provide a bedrock of support from which those dreams
can take flight.
“Those two years were pretty important years in my life,” recalls Brennan, who would go on to a four-year career at Boston College. “Moving away from home at an early age, you don’t know what to expect. You’re still maturing and getting ready to go to college.”
“John and Mary did a great job of making me feel comfortable and giving me steps to prepare for college and move forward and mature as a person and even as a hockey player.”
For the past nine years, Raab and Boyer have provided an ideal environment for eight teenage hockey players. And they show no signs of flagging.
“It’s been a great experience,” Raab says of her role as a billet mom. “We thought if we could make a difference in somebody’s life, that’s all we were out to do.”
The pair is currently hosting Collin Olson, a goaltender for the U.S. National Under-18 Team. He has his own bedroom, complete with comfortable bed, TV, dresser and spacious closet. Olson also has his own bathroom and a full study room, where he can be safe from potential distraction. Most important, he has a place to call his own within Boyer and Raab’s home.
It’s clear that that sense of home has helped the young goaltender to feel grounded as he continues to work toward his future goals.
“You get away from being with your parents, but you’re not thrown into everything by yourself,” Olson says of his billet experience. “You mature extremely fast. They give you a place to stay but aren’t going to be on you like your parents would.”
Bill and Carolyn Van Cleve have been providing a similar environment for NTDP players since Nate Raduns, a forward from Sauk Rapids, Minn., temporarily joined their family in 2000-01. The Van Cleves have opened their home to 10 different players during that time.
“We get these kids at 16 and 17,” says Bill Van Cleve. “They’re leaving their best friends, they’re leaving their area, they’re coming here and they don’t know who the heck they’re getting as a parent. All of the sudden, they’re put in this situation that they may or may not like. You’ve got to be calming.”
Jason Zucker, a second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild and forward at the University of Denver, lived with the Van Cleves from 2008 to 2010, along with teammate Stephen Johns. The Las Vegas native said he always felt the calming influence of such a great family.
“They really took care of us and they really cared about us and the things that were going on in our lives,” Zucker says. “They helped us grow as adults and really learn what we had to do to succeed not only in hockey, but as a person.
“They’ve seen a lot having billeted other kids before us. They knew what to expect.”
That experience is not easily gained, requiring persistence and an open mind from each of the billet parents.
“It’s a matter of really trying the best we can to watch what’s going on and try to keep the pulse,” Raab says. “If something seems to be bothering one of the boys, do you know what’s up? You just try and tune in so you can have a conversation.”
There’s also an element of teaching and tough love that is required of a billet family, as they house players during those formative years.
“At that age you need an adult to show you love and compassion, but also to give you direction,” says Bill Van Cleve. “Where we do push, we don’t go overboard, but there are certain things regarding manners and the way you do things. It’s for their future.”
“I feel like we’ve been sort of like a socializing force. So much in their life is hockey, they forget that there are other things,” adds Carolyn Van Cleve.
As is the case with many players and their billet families, the bonds of friendship formed during their time together only seem to grow stronger over time. From a player’s first college shift through graduation and hopefully into a professional career, billet families are often there to mark the progress and celebrate the milestones as these young men continue on in pursuit of their dreams.
“It seems like every big step I’ve moved forward in life, [Raab and Boyer] have always been a part of it,” Brennan says. “That’s really special and that means a lot to me.”