LONDON, Ontario — Murray and Stephanie Saunders weren't even planning on having children when whey bought a six-bedroom Victorian home in the early 2000s. In her job as a school teacher in London, Ontario, Stephanie first heard about host families or billets, who house junior hockey players during the season, and that sparked an idea.
The thought of filling the house with teenage boys didn't seem so hot at first to Murray.
"My wife came home from school and suggested that to me for our third floor, which had two bedrooms on it," he said. "I was like, 'What? In our house full-time?'"
But it didn't take too much convincing. Jim McKellar, the London Knights' assistant general manager at the time, explained the situation, and the Saunders agreed, despite not really being big sports fans. In the summer of 2003, they met their first player, Danny Syvret, and he lived at their house for three years.
Since, they've hosted Kris Belan, Kevin Montgomery, Steve Tarasuk and Chris DeSousa. They don't care about getting players with NHL pedigrees, enjoying the different adventures that come along with each kid.
"It's really rewarding, actually," Murray Saunders said. "They're just kids for us. We're not big sports fans. Before Danny had lived there, I hadn't gone to an NHL game since I played pee-wee hockey. So it had been 30 years since I had gone to an NHL game."
Scott and Gale Tooke both grew up in London and were hockey fans before getting into the host family business in 2003 with Danny Richmond, who started this season with the AHL's Hershey Bears. They went on to host a number of young players: David Bolland, Corey Syvret, Drew Larman, Tony Armano, Christian Thomas and Michael Del Zotto. This season they watch after Jared Knight and Max Domi.
"All of the kids that have lived with us have brought different experiences for us. And they're fun," Gale Tooke, 45, said. "They come home — I say home, they come back every summer, we see them every summer mostly all of them. They're like our extended family, and so is their family. So it's a lot of fun."
The idea of family is important to the Knights, and everyone said that started with Dale and Mark Hunter.
"Those kids that are drafted and come to the London Knights, if you played one game for them, they care about you. And they treat you like family. We have players that played maybe one season years ago, if they call Mark and say, 'I'd like to bring my family to the game.' Yep, come on to the game," McKellar said. "That kind of interest in their players' lives, it's very family-like. And I think a lot of that comes from their upbringing. Mark and Dale were part of a big family and a close family, and they've turned the London Knights into a big family."
Scott and Gale Tooke are particularly close with Drew and Carroll Bolland, the parents of David, who is now a center for the Chicago Blackhawks. The Bollands used to get a hotel when they visited London; now they stay at the Tooke house.
"Gale and Scott were unbelievable billets. Unbelievable," Drew Bolland said. "The money they get for watching these kids is nothing. Seventy-five bucks a week. They probably spend that in showers twice a day."
The payment is $75 a week, plus season tickets. While Scott and Gale Tooke get to attend Knight's and Domi's games this year, Murray and Stephanie Saunders haven't gone to as many games because they're taking time away from hosting. Stephanie, 44, is on leave, and Murray, a 46-year-old firefighter, has set aside this time to take a few family vacations to Florida.
When they can't go to games, their tickets very rarely, if ever, go to waste. Games aren't the same when they do attend.
"This year has been a little bit different going to the games because I don't have the personal connection with the players," Murray Saunders said. "When we've always had a player and been going, it's nice to have that personal connection."
Personal connections throughout the organization aren't just some cliché aspect of the Knights. Christmas dinners with the big London family are an annual tradition, and Noah, the Tookes' 13-year-old son is always welcome in the locker room.
Scott Tooke said the Hunters "will do anything for you."
"I don't know what other organizations are, but it's like a big family," Gale Tooke said. "We know Dale and Mark personally, my son knows them, my son's around the dressing room. They welcome that kind of thing. They're great, great people. ... They always make sure that you're comfortable and everything's going good."
Murray and Stephanie Saunders have three children now, including one son they adopted. Their first two were girls, and so when they were trying to adopt a boy, a question came up that was answered by the Saunders' time as a host family.
"When we were at the court case, the judge says, 'Oh this is your first brother.' she's like, 'No, I already have five brothers, '" Murray recalled. "She sees them all as her older brothers."
It's like an ever-expanding family. Gale Tooke enjoys it when guys like Bolland and Del Zotto come back to visit, and she tries to watch as many of their NHL games as she can.
"We formed a lot of relationships over the years and kept in touch with a lot of the families. Obviously, all the players we keep in touch with on a regular basis," Scott Tooke said. "Some of those guys are playing pro; some of them aren't, so they're kind of scattered all over. It's almost like they're part of your family and you don't forget about them."
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