The Home Game
The Simonsens (left to right: Jacob, Dana, Sadie, Jennifer) love hockey, so being Cam Whynot’s billet family was a natural choice. Photo: Bruce Murray
The journey to the big leagues is daunting, even in a normal year — billet families help the Halifax Mooseheads’ rising stars stay grounded
These are exciting times for Cam Whynot.
In July, the Calgary Flames chose him in the third round of the NHL draft, 89th overall. As he works towards a career in the pros, the defenceman is getting ready for his third season with the Halifax Mooseheads. The Kentville native will also rejoin his billet family in the city next month. Like major-junior teams across Canada, the Mooseheads rely on local billets to give players a home-away-from-home during the hockey season.
Whynot will again live with the Simonsens, the first player the family has hosted. Sadie Simonsen is 13 years old and plays ringette, while 10-year-old brother Jacob loves hockey.
“We thought it would be a pretty cool experience for them,” says Dana Simonsen, adding that they had been considering billeting for a while, when the opportunity to host Whynot came up. “It’s a kid from Nova Scotia, an hour away from home and English speaking … If we’re going to do it now, it’s the right fit, so we decided to jump in.”
The Simonsens offer Whynot lodging, meals, and a positive environment.
“It’s having a nice comfy environment for them to live in,” Simonsen says. “I was surprised at how busy their schedule is. We’re not responsible for any driving arrangements, social activities, just food and accommodations. They’re fairly busy, so it’s not uncommon for Cam to get up in the morning and head off to school. And then, by the time he gets home from the rink, it’s usually at 6:00 p.m., and we’ll sit down as a family and have a real nice supper.” After the family meal, it’s often back to work for Whynot—tutoring or a team event. With a schedule like that, a good billet can be a haven. “We make sure he’s comfortable, and we’re supportive,” says Simonsen. “We make sure he has a great experience away from his home. It’s a big culture change for a lot of these kids. We want to make them feel like they’re in a good environment.”
COVID-19 upended hockey’s predictable routines. For players like Whynot, who are not from the city, lockdowns and ever-shifting game and training schedules meant relying on the billets for the stability that their sport could no longer provide.
“Yeah, they’re huge—I’m very lucky I got fortunate to be with great billets,” says Whynot, who is an only child. “I have a younger billet sister and billet brother, and it’s cool. It’s like having a sibling for the first time, just playing and hanging out with them. My billet parents … do anything that I need and they’re always there for me. Whether it’s a tough day of practice, they talk about that … Over the past two years with them, they’ve definitely grown a special place in my heart.”
Former teammate Justin Barron, who recently made the jump to the NHL and the Colorado Avalanche, is another big support.
“Justin is a great person; he is a great hockey player to start with, and he was our captain,” Whynot says. “He was our best player, leads by example every day and for me being able to play with him was huge. He’s been in the league for a while. He was a first-round pick in the NHL draft. He just talked to you on a bench and showed you a few things here and there. Off the ice in my draft year, he kind of went through the same thing in a little bit of a pandemic year, just talking about things, whether interviews or pretty much anything about the draft, he kind of knows. He’s been through it, and he’s just a guy you can always talk to about anything.”
Mooseheads center Senna Peeters will be billeting for the third regular season with Jean and Melanie Gagne. Peeters is the family’s second billet player.
“We’re a big hockey family; I used to play just for fun, and my son plays for fun,” Jean says. “Melanie’s parents have been season ticket holders for 23 years, so we often get the games. Then we have season tickets with, through my work for a while and, and then we just decided that it would be fun to try it out.”
As for the billeting experience, they thought it was a great way to add to their family.
“They’re here, and we’re kind of like their family away from home, so we try to make them feel like part of our family as much as we can,” Jean says. “It’s the fact that it’s adding to your family; whatever you will do as a family, you would just simply include that extra person.”
Peeters had made a positive impression on the family over the past few seasons, filling a void in the Gagne
family, being a role model to their 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. Peeters brings different perspectives to the household.
“He’s like the big brother to both of them,” Jean says. “it’s just fun learning each other’s cultural differences. He’s from Europe, so it’s a little different than what we’d be used to, but we’ve had a good time learning his background and about his friends and his family. His family has been down two or three times, including his grandparents from Belgium. It’s been just nice getting to know them and being as much interested in his life as he is living here in ours.”
When the season came to a screeching halt in March 2020, Peeters returned to Belgium, hoping to rejoin the team in July. As travel restrictions came into effect, it created more uncertainty of when Peeters could return to Halifax. While he was waiting weekly for the phone call to say he could come to Halifax, Peeters played for Swedish team Rögle BK and worked out at his home in Belgium to stay motivated and ready.
When Peeters represented Austria (his father’s native country) at the 2020 World Junior Championship in Edmonton, he stayed in Canada and reunited with the team and the Gagnes after the tournament.
“I didn’t go home anymore to say goodbye because I wanted to be allowed to stay in the country,” Peeters says. “I talk to them on the phone every day about practices, always a little update. I do that with my family; I live here with billets who are great people. I like it here, so it feels like a nice second home, and my parents have visited, so they know where I am living, so it’s not like I am in a stranger’s place suddenly. We have a group where we talk after a game and show some pictures and stuff, so I stay updated about home.”
The Gagnes are impressed with the calm and resolve Peeters showed last season despite only playing 16 games.
“I would say that he’s demonstrated a tremendous amount of mental strength, determination, commitment, and maturity,” Melanie says. “When you think of when he participated, for example, in the world juniors, during that timeframe, he was in quarantine at a hotel between Austria, Edmonton and then back here in Halifax for close to six weeks.”
The Gagnes aren’t big hockey fans, but they understand what Peeters needs from his billet.
“Our role — whether he’s coming from practice or a game — is to have a normal family life, sit down for supper, have a laugh,” Melanie says. “He regularly plays hockey with our son, whether it be in the living room, outside of the garage. It’s able to provide that supportive space, that outlet, where he can just be himself, and that could be having conversations about some of his concerns, or he could just also be watching a movie and laughing.”
New Mooseheads head coach Sylvain Favreau was an assistant last season. He saw the importance that sort of support during last year’s unusual season.
“The hockey family is a pretty tight-knit family too, so we held ourselves together pretty, pretty good over the course of the season,” he says. “I think that within the hockey club, we’re a big family, and we’re here to support each other. Their number one support group is their teammates and colleagues. So I think that was a way to ease some of that anxiety and not stress. We [the staff] tried to make every effort to have fun interactions. We had team builders, different events, movie nights. We had our theater, a video theater room at the rink as the mimic of a theater cause we couldn’t go to see a movie outright. We did our best to surround the players with some sense of normalcy.”
As the vaccine rollout is accelerating and restrictions ease, the Mooseheads look forward to a closer-to-normal season.
“For us, it’s just family time,” Jean Gagne says. “We have season tickets with the kids, and we go to every game, and we support Senna as much as we can. We have fun. We make a night of it every game and then a win or lose, good or bad for Senna; we’re just glad to see him play and try his hardest, cheer and win together, or cope losing together.“