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Leaving home for hockey: what’s it like?

By Riley Maracle and [1]Shelden Rogers [2]

BELLEVILLE – At the age of 16 exceptional hockey players are selected in the Ontario Hockey League draft, the first step to pursuing the Canadian dream of playing in the NHL. That means (most of the time) that the player will have to move away from home to live with a billet family in the team’s home city. The move doesn’t only affect the player’s life, but the lives of many different people, and there can be stress for all involved. In the wake of the recent suicide of Terry Trafford [3], a forward with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit [4], some questions have been raised about whether there are enough safeguards in place to protect the well-being of these young players.

The experience of Evan McEneny [5], a 19-year-old defenceman now with the Kingston Frontenacs [6], formerly of the Kitchener Rangers [7] – and a prospect of the Vancouver Canucks [8] – offers some insight into the highs and lows of being in the OHL [9].


The Player

Evan McEneny [10]

Evan McEneny started his Ontario Hockey League career with the Kitchener Rangers. Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images


KINGSTON – Growing up in tiny Caistor Centre, 38 kilometres south of Hamilton, Ont., Evan McEneny always wanted to play in the NHL. While his defenceman position meant he never racked up the big statistics, he always made the all-star teams in the local minor leagues.

But if he wanted to get on the path to the NHL, he would have to leave home at the young age of 16. When he was drafted by the Kitchener Rangers, it was time to make a choice.

“It was the biggest decision of my life. I spent almost all summer trying to decide whether I was going to go the OHL or whether I wanted to stay home and maybe pursue hockey in a different way.”

But once he’d decided on the OHL, it was a little easier for McEneny that Kitchener was only an hour and 15 minutes away from home.

Still, it was the first time he would be living away from his family.

“It’s tough. It’s all new – everything’s new. It’s a whole different environment. Especially with the hockey. You’re playing a different role on the team – you’re not playing as much. You get stressed out about every little thing. You just learn as you go along, I guess. (But) after a month or two you get used to the routine.“

The higher level of hockey brought on some new challenges for him.

“It’s not like in minor hockey where you’re one of the best players … Here in the OHL there is just a lot of added stress.”

But as his time progressed in Kitchener, the stress got easier to deal with. McEneny realized that although he wasn’t at home, the people he had always talked to before he’d left were still there for him.

“My parents, I talk to them a lot. And I’ve had a girlfriend the whole way through hockey. So I always talk to her.”

Then he found more people he could talk to.

“Older guys on the team when I was younger would be talking to me and encouraging me and saying, ‘If you need anything just ask.’ ”

That support was not only at the arena. McEneny says that the Martin family, who billeted him while he played in Kitchener, has always been great for him and helped him feel more comfortable while playing for the Rangers.

“I do talk to them. It does help a lot to have someone there and you’re not an hour away from them.”

He added that although he always felt that he could go to someone, not all players will feel that way.

“I think maybe (the OHL should) make it more known that each team has someone to talk to. Kind of put it out there and maybe have a mandatory meeting with this person right when you get there to kind of go over guidelines and what the team’s like.”

While the pressure is inevitable, players just need to know how to deal with it and have the services available to do so, he said.

“All in all I think there’s always going to be stress. Especially at such a young age.”


The Family

McEneny Family [11]

A family snapshot of the McEnenys: from left, father Don, younger son Trevor, mom Cindy and Evan. Photo courtesy of the McEneny family

CAISTOR CENTRE, Ont. – For the parents of Evan McEneny, letting their first-born son move away to pursue his hockey dreams was harder than they thought it would be.

Don and Cindy McEneny watched their son get drafted in the second round to the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers at the start of the 2010 season. It was a day filled with many emotions for Cindy.

“At first it was really exciting. He was so happy,” she said. “I was a little worried about how far he would have to go. Luckily Kitchener was just over an hour away, which was nice for Mom.”

The whole family had thought long and hard about whether Evan should play in the OHL or attend college and play there.

“We had an NCAA [12] (U.S. National College Athletics Association) offer, so do you wait a couple years until he gets older? But when it was Kitchener that was called (on draft day) – good reputation. So we were pretty excited about that, and it made decisions easier,” Don said.

But once the decision was made the stress began to set in for them. The day Evan left for Kitchener [13] “was an emotional day for everybody,” Don said. “You could see the stress on everybody.”

Cindy added: “It was horrible for me. And it was hard for (Evan) too.”

With Evan out on his own the McEnenys’ way of life changed. Not only was there one less body in the household, but they still had to look out for him while he was away.

“First few months in Kitchener I would call him a lot and ask if everything was okay,” Don said. “Then he finally told me, ‘Dad, I’ll tell you if something’s not okay.’ When he said that it made it a lot easier – because you’re always worried, right?”

“When he first left I made sure we had Skype all set up so we could actually see him to make sure he was all right,” Cindy added.

The billet situation helped reduce the worry for the McEnenys.  They were introduced to the billet family, Mike and Ellen Martin, the summer before his first season.

“We got to meet them and tour their house and have a conversation with them, (and) it just turned out they were lovely people,” said Cindy. Ellen Martin “sent me an email before Evan even got there asking me what does he like to eat, what does he like to do, you know, that sort of stuff – so that was a nice gesture.”

“Early on in Kitchener (the Martins) were the most important part. Because it was a new school, new friends, and hockey is incredibly stressful. They were the most stabilizing factor that was there,” said Don.

Any problems Evan ran into caused them extra worry, especially at the beginning.

“When he was a healthy scratch we would feel stress, because how is he feeling?” said Don.

But Cindy added that it got better with time.

“He is dealing with it better as he is getting older and more mature and more towards an adult.”

Evan’s adjustment to life away from home was helped not just by his billet family, but also by his teammates – “more so in (stressful) situations than the coaching staff, I think, just because of the bonding of the team players,” Cindy said.

Early this season Evan was traded from Kitchener to the Kingston Frontenacs. The move was hard for everyone involved.

“He expected to be traded this year, but not that early,” said Don. “He was so comfortable in Kitchener with his billet, coaches and teammates.”

Cindy added: “You have to understand this happens all in one day. Say you get drafted in the OHL and you have all summer to communicate and to worry about all of those things. But when you’re traded, it’s like one day you’re traded, the next day you go.”

Despite such difficult moments, Don and Cindy say that the entire experience has helped Evan become who he is today.

“It’s been an incredible experience for him. He has grown up fast because of it. He is a problem-solver now. He can walk into a situation now, try and figure it out,” Don said.

“I think this has made him a lot more outgoing than he may have been otherwise,” said Cindy.

The OHL didn’t really tell them about specific support services available for players if they have an issue such as stress or depression that needs to be dealt with, the McEnenys said. But they said that with the experience they have with Evan in Kitchener and Kingston, they feel that if anything came up it would be easy to get help.

“They always assure us that whatever the kids need they will get. But as a parent I always assume that he will come to us, and if there is a problem we would be sure to call them and deal with it,” Don said.


The Billet Family

Evan McEneny with the Martin family [14]

Evan lived with Mike and Ellen Martin for his entire time with the Kitchener Rangers. This photo was taken at one of the team’s end-of-season Billet Appreciation nights. Photo courtesy of Ellen Martin

CARRYING PLACE – Ellen and Mike Martin have just finished their 14th season as billets for the Kitchener Rangers, and it may have been the hardest for them so far – because Evan McEneny, a player who had become like a family member, had moved on.

The Martins, who live in Kitchener, began billeting for the Rangers back in the 2000-01 season. But in an interview here in Carrying Place – where she was visiting her mother – Ellen Martin said it wasn’t a quick decision by the family.

“My daughter said, ‘How about we billet a Ranger?’ And I said no – boys eat too much. And then the next year, we saw an ad in the paper that the Rangers were looking for billets, and then I said, ‘Okay, we will look into it’ – then the rest is history.”

Her job, and that of her husband, have helped them handle teenage problems, she said. “I’m a teacher and my husband is a principal, so we are used to dealing with students.”

The Martins have billeted players such as Jeff Skinner [15] (now with the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes [16]), David Clarkson [17] (of the Toronto Maple Leafs [18]), Mark Fraser [19](Edmonton Oilers [20]) and Matt Halischuk [21](Winnipeg Jets [22]). But the past few years they grew close with one player: Evan McEneny.

He moved in with the family for the 2010-11 season, his first with the Rangers. By then Martin was used to move-in day; she has learned what to expect from the new players.

“The rookies are the ones that are the most interesting. Some parents are a little bit of helicopter parents, some parents are a little overprotective, some parents are a little laissez-faire. ”

The Martins have seen many different players and the nerves that come with moving away from home, and they try to do their best to make the young men feel comfortable.

“We just say that you’re part of the family. We try to make them feel like they’re part of the family. It doesn’t matter if they are a high draft pick, it doesn’t matter if they are a walk-on – they are no better or no less than anyone in the family. So it’s a whole family situation that they come into.”

McEneny fit right into the family just like every other player, she said – but there was something special about him.

“There are players in the end that you do feel closer to. Because either it’s their personality and your personality have jived, or the families have kept in contact.”

In McEneny’s 3½ seasons with the Martins and the Rangers, he became a member of the family, she said.

That made dealing with any problems or stress that he had easier, she added.

“Usually we just sit down and talk about it. It all depends on the players. Some of the players like to talk and open up; other players are a little more quiet. I’m always amazed at some of the stuff they tell us. I’m thinking ‘If I was that age, I wouldn’t be telling anyone that.’ ”

McEneny was a player who felt very comfortable living with them and opening up about problems, she said.

In Evan’s last season he had a roommate at the Martins’ – fellow Ranger Ryan MacInnis [23] – whom he grew close to. The addition helped with the comfort level in the Martin household.

“Having two of them is helpful, because sometimes one will let you know when something is going on with the other player,” said Martin.

The team and league give some rules about curfews, diet and so on, while the rest are given by the billet family.

“The team has a lot of rules that the boys have to follow,” Martin said. “They have an 11 o’clock curfew. We have general household rules. Some houses won’t let girls in the house. Our house hasn’t had a problem; (girls) just aren’t allowed in the bedroom. They have their own general rec room where they can hang out.”

Cellphones have made it easier to make sure the player is safe and keep tabs on where he is, she said.

The Martins have been told that they’re an influential part in the development of  the players.

“Some parents will say that you’re the reason their boys were so successful in hockey. Sometimes you really like to hear that.”