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Sports Saturday

‘Jonathan Toews eats his vegetables’: Billet family helps young Chicago Steel players navigate hockey, life

Marcy and Brian Gravenhorst do more than billet for Chicago Steel — they help players through a crucial part of their hockey careers.

(From left) Jack Bar, Simon Latkoczy, Brian Gravenhorst, Marcy Gravenhorst and Lukas Gustafsson sit down for a lasagna dinner at the Gravenhorst home in Aurora, Wednesday evening, April 28, 2021. Brian and Marcy Gravenhorst are a billet family for Chicago Steel players Bar, Latkoczy and Gustafsson, who are from Canada, Slovakia and the American state of Georgia, respectively.
(From left) Jack Bar, Simon Latkoczy, Brian Gravenhorst, Marcy Gravenhorst and Lukas Gustafsson sit down for a lasagna dinner at the Gravenhorst home in Aurora, Wednesday evening, April 28, 2021. Brian and Marcy Gravenhorst are a billet family for Chicago Steel players Bar, Latkoczy and Gustafsson, who are from Canada, Slovakia and the American state of Georgia, respectively.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Even with no one in it, the kitchen in Marcy and Brian Gravenhorst’s Aurora home gives away the game: Something unusual is going on here. One big bowl is filled with protein bars. Another with Goldfish crackers. A third with clementines. Two large bottles of honey, plus jumbo jars of Nutella and peanut butter. In the fridge, Gatorade. In the oven, lasagna is baking for dinner. Lots of lasagna.

“I made two pans,” says Marcy.

A lot of food for a retired couple: Brian is 70, a retired computer programmer. Marcy is 69, a retired special ed teaching assistant. But they are not alone.

“Should I call the munchkins to dinner?” Marcy asks Brian.

“Call the troops!” he decrees.

Downstairs clomp Lukas Gustafsson, Jack Bar and Simon Latkoczy, three members of the Chicago Steel hockey team. They are the Gravenhorsts’ dinner guests tonight and every night; the three players have lived with the couple for almost nine months.

“Three 18-year-olds,” elaborates Brian, letting that sink in. “Hockey players are always hungry.”

Welcome to the world of hockey billet families. The public is so enamored with professional sports, parsing every detail of the National Hockey League’s teams and stars, they might not even be aware of the modest traditions of the United States Hockey League. Here, players are paid literally nothing — which is a step up for them, because before they were paying for the privilege of playing the sport. The USHL is a place to hone their skills, get accepted to a good college and maybe, just maybe, catch the attention of the pros.

A salary of $0 doesn’t leave much for living expenses, however. This is where billet families step in, to house them, feed them and mother them, performing various practical tasks, like taking a pair of Finns to the Finnish consulate to vote for the first time.

The Gravenhorsts are the oldest of the Steel’s 15 billet families — sometimes referring to themselves as “hockey grandparents” — hosting for their sixth year. Like many grandparents, the couple sweats the details. Three flagpoles next to their garage display the national flag for each player, greeting them when they arrive, plus the American flag over the front door. The players are supposed to do their own laundry, but Marcy won’t allow that — that would involve teenage males fiddling with her washing machine. They are expected to get their dirty clothes and linen into a clothes hamper which, as any parent of boys knows, is already placing the bar pretty high.

The Gravenhorsts do this . . . why exactly?

For Marcy, it is all about hockey.

“I’m a rabid Chicago Blackhawks fan and have been since forever,” she says. They’d hosted foreign exchange students — for at most a few weeks at a time. Then the Chicago Steel moved to Geneva.

“They were looking for billet homes,” says Marcy. “We’re not that far from the Fox Valley Ice Arena.”

And Brian, well, he’s married to Marcy, and then there is the joy of keeping the boys fed.

“I do grilling, I do ribs, I do pulled pork,” says Brian, “I also do a brisket from time to time, Texas style. We introduce spice to these kids. A lot of ’em have eaten a bland diet all their lives. They really love a brisket.”

Dinner conversation centers around — any guesses? — hockey.

“How was practice?” Marcy asks. “What did you guys do?”

“Good,” they reply in chorus.

There’s a fresh bruise on the face of Canadian Jack Bar — the Steel announcer calls him “Kit Kat” — and he shows off his scabbed knuckles and a cellphone with video of the on-ice fight against Muskegon’s Quinn Hutson is passed around, appreciatively.

Simon Latkoczy (nicknamed “Chimp,”

for his athleticism) is a top goalie from Slovakia, which brings up another appeal of billet hosting.

“Having these boys in the house for nine months, I get to ask questions,” says Marcy. “The last few seasons, we’ve had goalies, which are few and far between. What do they do? Why they do it. How they do it. When watching a game, I see something and can ask, ‘Why do you do that? It doesn’t make sense.’ ”

Such as?

“Sometimes you see a goalie in the goal. Play is going on on the other end of the ice, and all of a sudden the goalie takes the stick and starts slapping on the ice. What does that mean? He is signaling to his team; the penalty on the other team ends in approximately five seconds.”

The Gravenhorst cats are named Brandy and Mac, for Macallan, Brian’s favorite tipple. But the only beverage is lemonade. Players are forbidden to drink alcohol and rigorously abide.

“They never even ask,” says Brian.

Really? Never?

“The boys are that nice,” says Brian. “We’re not gilding the lily here. They are that nice, polite, well-mannered human beings.”

Generally. In six years, the Gravenhorsts have lost two players, at the same time, to disciplinary problems. What was it: Crime? Drugs? Fighting?

No. Overly boisterous indoor soccer.

“It wasn’t malicious, they were just getting out of hand, the rockers were poking holes into the wall,” says Marcy “They would play around a lot in the bedrooms” — each player has his own — ‘‘and started doing damage to the house. I called the coach and said, ‘These guys gotta go.’ He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us sooner?’ ”

Without billet families, the Steel would have trouble putting a team on the ice, and they know it.

“There are horror stories throughout our league of players in billets that have gone wrong,” says Steel president Dan Lehv. “We’ve been fortunate in Chicago. Our housing coordinator meets with families, tours homes, goes a layer deeper, surveying the players, the families.”

Most players are self-policing.

“First of all, hockey players are notoriously known as being good guys,” says Lehv. “When they get to this level, there’s so much at stake for them, there’s a college scholarship sitting in front of them. This league is a ticket for 96% of them. They don’t want to screw that up. But more than that, they do come here, their parents did a really good job. They know this is part of the hockey culture, to go and live in someone else’s home.’’

Even with COVID shortening the season, there was still a waiting list of families eager to host players.

“We were overwhelmed that the families were still lined up to accept players for this season,” said Lehv. “At the same time, our players have done an incredible job of taking care of themselves and taking the proper precautions so they don’t bring COVID home to our housing families.”

Though teens are still teens, and during dinner, when Brian leaps up to show off his collection of bobbleheads, the trio politely suppress snickers and flash “Oh, that dad . . .” grins at each other. A reminder that not only do the families have to adjust to the players, but the players must adjust to the peculiarities of family life, like the naughty gnome figurines that the Gravenhorsts liberally scatter around their dining room.

Decorum is important; their professional fate can pivot on the Gravenhorsts’ good opinion.

“Our Swedish player, the Red Wings are watching him,” Marcy says of a player from the past. “I had an agent from the Red Wings call and talk about Victor.” The St. Louis Blues also had inquired about a player’s character, and, yes, she answered positively, despite the urge, as a loyal Blackhawks fan, to deny their hated rival a potential asset.

“If someone gets drafted by the Blues, I’m in real trouble,” says Marcy. “I always tease them, ‘I don’t care what team you play for, but I draw the line at the St. Louis Blues.’ ”

Besides hockey, there is much talk of food: the molten lava cupcakes for dessert. Gustafsson, a dual Swedish/American citizen nicknamed “Goose,” passes the salad.

“You have to eat vegetables at every dinner meal,” says Brian. “Even if you only take a little bit, you HAVE to take some.”

Marcy is the enforcer when it comes to greens.

“I say, ‘Look, you’re hockey players,’ ” she says. “ ‘What you eat affects your health later in life. Jonathan Toews eats his vegetables.’ ” (Indeed he does. “So much more satisfying to eat food that you’ve grown yourself,” tweeted the Blackhawks’ captain, promoting his Green Bronx Machine project, which encourages healthy eating and gardening in Chicago Public Schools.)

Once a newcomer missed the unsubtle eat-your-peas message, and a more seasoned player unceremoniously spooned vegetables onto his plate, earning a scowl.

“He said, ‘If I gotta eat ’em, you gotta eat ’em,’ ” Brian recalls. “And that was it.”

Food costs money, and billet families do get paid by the Steel: $300 per month per player.

“That pretty much covers the meat budget,” says Brian. “We do it because these kids are wonderful human beings. They are working so hard to live their dream. They know they’re not all going to make it, but they’re working hard for it.”

Which brings up another important role for the families.

“Families are providing these players, not just a room and a bed to sleep on, not just nourishment in the form of a family dinner,” says Lehv. “This is the level where the cream rises to the top. Players get weeded out if they’re just not good enough to move on. They’ve been the best players — they haven’t gone through lengthy slumps where they haven’t scored a goal in months, haven’t been scratched from the lineup consistently. This is where hardships happen. These families play such a crucial role, in terms of the psyche of our players, helping them manage a situation that’s completely new to them. They are a shoulder to cry on. They are there for our players in good times and in bad, for everything that happens in the lives of a 16- to 21-year-old over a nine-month period.”

“We know it’s hard for them even though they’re in contact with their families,” says Marcy, who’ll tweet their actual parents updates during games.

Many billet families do not stop being close after players move on.

“What I found out is there are so many

relationships that are developed, lifelong,” says Lehv.

And indeed the Gravenhorsts keep photos of players who’ve lived with them previously on the walls of the living room (where they have a pool table for the boys; there’s also a hot tub), and keep up on their current status and careers.

So what have they learned, hosting Europeans?

“One thing we’ve learned over the years, they’re not used to the American friendliness,” says Marcy. “Normally people don’t chitchat. If you’re outside, people will say hello. They don’t do that. We’ve had a couple people ask, ‘How do I respond?’ I tell them, ‘You can wave, you can speak if you want. Smile.’ ”

The Gravenhorsts certainly do. They plan to remain billet grandparents for as long as they are able.

“It brings a lot of laughter and a lot of life into the house,” says Marcy. “We’ve had nothing but fun.”

She has an adult daughter.

“Now I’m raising sons,” she says. “The boys keep us young and it’s fun, and I highly recommend being a billet.”

The Steel, by the way, won the Anderson Cup for the second year in a row by scoring the most points this season: 81. Which gives them home-ice advantage facing the Fargo Force in the five-game championship series for the Clark Cup.

“We’re getting ready for Fargo,” Marcy says. “This is it, the finals. They’re really excited about the season. They swept Dubuque. They swept Muskegon. And now they’re getting ready to play Fargo.”

The two teams split the first two games, and the series continues this weekend.

The three were not so focused on winning that they overlooked something also very important: They sent Marcy flowers and made a charitable donation in her honor for Mother’s Day.

“That touched me so much,” she says. “It’s bittersweet. I want them to win the Cup, but it’s a sad time for me. This is when I have to say goodbye. It’s with tears of joy.”

Contributing: Ashlee Rezin Garcia