A Hockey Life: Part 2

Cloquet Families Open Up Homes for Wilderness Players

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“You hope everything goes well and you just trust the process.”

For Bill and Patti Exell, watching their 17-year-old son, Billy, drive away from their home in Ontario to a new home in Cloquet, wasn’t easy. 

“As parents, you’re just trying to tell your son it’s going to be okay, it’s going to work out,” said Patti. 

Hockey was supposed to be Billy’s main focus, but thoughts about his new home consumed him.

“You come here and at first you don’t even know anything about the people you’re living with, you just show up at the door and introduce yourself,” Billy said.

Wilderness players not from the area are placed with hockey-loving, volunteer families, who lend a home away from home to watch these boys follow their dreams. 

“We’ve gone into it saying if our boys were pursuing this kind of a dream, that we would want someone to open up a home for them, would want somebody to do the same for them,” said Rita and Kirk Johnson, Billy’s billet parents.

As soon as Billy met the Johnson’s, he and his parents could rest assured he would be in good hands.

“I have a hard time saying no,” claimed Rita.

“Exactly, that’s the main thing, she can’t say no,” joked Kirk.

“Knowing what we know now and where Billy does live, it’s the best it could be, we couldn’t have asked for any, anything better,” confessed Patti. 

Tom Proulx, Carlton County Commissioner and probation officer, has years of experience working with kids. Sharing his home was nothing out of the ordinary. 

“It’s not unusual having kids, people, strangers, come into the house, so that wasn’t a big shock to me,” Proulx said. “I’ve always opened up my home to people.”

Living with Tom, Nik and Tyler feel right at home.

“We hang out, watch TV go to the movies, go to dinner, do stuff like a normal family would,” Tyler said. 

“I’m cooking, he’s cleaning the dishes,” laughed Nik.

Tom treats the boys as if they were his own.

“He’s like my son, you know, I have to get after him every now and then,” Tom said of Tyler. “We give Tyler a hard time because he gets a lot of penalties and he’s been in a lot of fights and that kind of stuff, so we have to ground him, frequently. We tell him if he gets in the penalty box he’s grounded.”

For Tom, hosting Nik, who came over from Finland, has been a different experience all together.

“Tyler can go home, he’s got family here, he’s got a lot of family support, he can go home for Christmas and stuff,” Proulx explained. “Nik, he stays with us, he’ll go with our family for visits.”

Billet families get money each month to pay for food and necessities for these young hockey players. But Tom knows this is not a money-making venture.

“It’s more about giving these kids a place to stay, a safe place to live, and something that you give to them and they give back to the community,” said Proulx.

Tom and the Johnsons both agree a love for hockey is a necessity.

“We just like going to their games, number one,” Kirk expressed. “If they’re away, you know, we talk about the games the next day or that night when they get home. So that’s the biggest part of it, you know, bringing hockey into our family again.”

And hope to give the boys the chance to experience a whole different way of living.

“A lot of them have come from big cities, so they come and they have to get used to living in a small town, it’s a pretty big shock to some of them,” Rita mentioned. “I think Kirk has had them throw firewood in and probably made them venison.”

“Oh yeah, they’ve pulled deer out of the woods for me,” Kirk laughed.

But the life-long relationships and the reward is what drives them to continue opening up their homes.

“I mean, honestly, I would say he’s like my second dad,” Tyler said of Tom.

“You get as much back as you put in,” Rita added.

“The kids just come in here and they just, they feel like family,” Proulx stated. “It’s just really kind of a neat experience because they may leave, but they’re not gone forever.”

While there’s the family we are born with, there’s also the family we choose.

“We’re glad we made this choice, not just with the Wilderness, but with the Johnson family, because they are a part of our lives now, and a part of his life,” said a teary-eyed Patti Exell. 

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