Sunday, May 23, 2021

‘Jonathan Toews eats his vegetables’

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia

     There's an interesting backstory to this. After I wrote a column about Rich Cohen's new book about being a hockey dad, Chicago Steel publicist Shannan Bunting, mistakenly believing I care about hockey, approached me with the idea of doing a column on players  billeting during COVID. I interviewed one fine young man. Nothing I could put in the paper. Then another. Again nothing I would print. I politely tried to communicate that. Nevertheless she persisted, suggesting I talk to the Gravenhorsts. 
     Certain I was wasting my and their time, but polite to a fault, I made the call. An hour later we were still talking, and I knew this would be a fun piece, and also knew just where to put it: the Saturday Sports Wrapper, a cornucopia of diverse, in-depth, Sports Illustrated-quality stories, which would take 2,000 words on this subject without blinking. 
     The photos are by the essential Ashlee Rezin, who also noticed a few details that slipped past me, such as the skinned knuckles and the exchanged smirks. I've worked with many great photographers, from Pulitzer Prize-winner John H. White to Robert A. Davis, who shot personal photos for Oprah and Eva Longoria's wedding in Paris, and she's right up there with the best of them. 

     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?”

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  1. Nice piece, Neil. Is there a reason why the online version of your Bill Mauldin column included a number of photos, but this only features one?

    1. I suppose because I’m in Virginia, at my kid’s law school graduation, and figured two would do.

    2. Congratulations to you both! Just to clarify, I wasn't complaining about the presentation on the blog, though. I was wondering about the behind-the-scenes process at the Sun-Times website where both articles appeared, not that you'd have appreciated that question either. Sorry to have bothered you, particularly on such an occasion.

  2. Saw this on Saturday and skipped over it — what the hell do I care about hockey. Turns out I almost missed out on one of those marvelous experiences, so common to this blog, of watching a tiny, almost invisible bud of interest blossom into a lovely curiosity delighted with every mundane detail. Thanks, Neil.


  3. I consider myself a hockey fan, and yet I had never heard of the Chicago Steel. The things you learn on this blog. Maybe I'll check them out once the world is back to normal.

  4. I'm no hockey fan, but I liked this article quite a bit anyway!

  5. This is one of my favorite PR wins of my career--I have wanted THIS story told for about 2 years and I could not imagine it turning out any better! Thank you!


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