By Scott Wheeler
March 4, 2017
On a nightly basis, Lori Albert prepares a pre-game meal for her three boys.
But these boys aren’t her children, at least not biologically. Albert is a billet mom for the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. But biology aside, she thinks of these boys as her sons.
“We’ve got a very extended family,” she said over the phone from her small home in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec.
For the last six years Albert, 55, has worked as the billet coordinator for the Huskies. After her two adult children moved out, and she closed the daycare she ran for 18 years, Albert said her home felt far too empty.
“It was time to fill it up again,” she said. “My husband and I have always been surrounded by kids, shall we say.”
Throughout those six years, Albert has welcomed eight players into her home. For the last two years, she has housed Maple Leafs prospect Martins Dzierkals. Originally from Latvia, Dzierkals had never even been to Canada until he was selected by Toronto in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
The Albert’s home became his first in Canada.
While Dzierkals said it was “tough” leaving Latvia and his “big family back home” as a teenager, he felt a familial comfort with Albert from the start.
“I can’t say anything but good words about them because they made me feel like a family,” he said. “The adaptation was really easy because of them. They’re really good. They make sure it feels like home every day.”
In his time there, Albert and Dzierkals — who she affectionally calls “Marty” — have grown close. But before he arrived, Albert did her research, as she always does.
“I shouldn’t say the word creep, but we kind of creep them because we want to know what kind of kid we’re getting too,” Albert said. “Everything we came up with on this young man we were like, ‘Holy smokes, he’s really on the ball.’”
It didn’t take long for Dzierkals to impress either. When he arrived in Toronto, he couldn’t speak English. By the time he moved in with Albert, just a few weeks later, he was speaking in complete sentences. Today, he’s fully bilingual and talks without much of an accent.
“We never pulled out the translator once. With the Russians we’d housed, we always had a translator on our phones so we could communicate with them,” she said.
“I remember my first month at camp after the Leafs drafted me and I couldn’t talk at all,” Dzierkals said over the phone. “I was afraid or something but I just couldn’t talk. As time goes, I didn’t have a choice. If I wanted to communicate with people here I had to talk.”
He still practices every day, picking up details and words as he goes. His billet mom is proud of his progression.
“For such a young man, I admire his maturity and perseverance,” Albert said. “To learn a third language, and now he’s trying to learn French because he understands that it’s just a benefit to do it even though he realizes he might not be here for that much longer. But it’s the perseverance, definitely. It floored me.”
Beyond just the language barrier, there are many other challenges for young players who move to Canada to pursue a hockey career. Albert said she strives to make her players feel comfortable.
“Our main objective is to try to get these kids to understand that yes, it is scary. They’re coming into an environment where they’re not going to be familiar with the language, and that we’re there to help them out,” she said. “Making them feel secure, knowing that they’re coming to the home of somebody who is going to be there for them.”
Part of that means giving each player his own room and “quiet space.” Her players also take over her basement recreation room, she said. There, it’s not uncommon to find 15 other Huskies just being teenagers.
“The way I look at it, somewhere along the line these boys need a safe space that’s not at the arena. Somewhere where they can still get together and just talk about whatever they want to talk about or play Xbox,” Albert said. “We were that way with our kids so it’s not any different having these boys come in and do it and you know that the fridge is full and there’s always something to grab and snack on.”
Still, there’s a lot of parenting that happens: “You have no choice. You have to ensure that they have good sleeping habits, good eating habits and just good basic habits.”
Over the years, Albert said she becomes attached to the players she hosts.
“You always hope that even when they leave you that they remember you,” she said. “Our experience so far has been that we’ve maintained contact with not only the players but the families.”
Even long after the boys have moved on in their hockey careers, Albert remains in touch.
“You never, ever lose these kids,” Albert said. “They become part of you.”
While Albert acts as a surrogate mom when the Huskies players are under her roof, she also makes an effort to form “a connection with the parents before the kid even gets here.”
For instance, when Dzierkals injured his ankle a few months ago, Albert sent email updates to his mom in Latvia, who she had met a year earlier when his parents visited Rouyn-Noranda.
“There’s something about communication between mothers that just automatically happens, that we understand each other,” Albert said. “We’ve got a good bond. It’s good. I feel like we’ve made a connection.”
That connection grew deeper at this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship.
“Oh my God, I can’t describe it,” she said, excitedly.
In December, Albert travelled with Dzierkals to Toronto to watch him represent Latvia. There, she got to spend time with his parents, who don’t speak English, with Martins’ older brother acting as a translator.
Having Albert there meant a lot to Dzierkals.
“It was special to have both families…there; my Canadian family and my Latvian family,” he said, laughing.
One moment in particular, when Latvia played Canada, touched Albert.
“I mean they (Latvia) weren’t as strong as some of the other teams in the tournament and there were some nasty comments going on and then when Marty scored and I had my jersey on and we stood up, all of a sudden the atmosphere around us changed,” she said.
“The people that were saying nasty things were all of a sudden slapping us on the back and congratulating us. It was just magic the way things turned around.”
The goal was special for Dzierkals too.
“When I scored, it was kind of amazing to do it in front of them,” he said.
Another benefit of Albert’s billeting experience is that she’s fallen in love with hockey. Before she became a billet, she never followed hockey. Her son had played, but she admitted she spent most of her time at the rink with her daughter, a figure skater.
Today, she recalls missing just one Huskies home game in six years.
“Now you can’t get me out of that arena,” Albert said. “I have to be on my deathbed to not go to a game. We follow them on the road. We follow them in the arenas. We’re there.”
So, does that mean she’ll be a Leafs fan if Dzierkals ever makes it?
“I think I already am,” she said, laughing hysterically. “I am a Leafs fan now.”
Albert has never seen one of her boys reach the NHL level. Even so, she said Dzierkals’ path means more to her than the finish line.
“Even if he doesn’t follow the journey that he’s hoping to follow, he’s made us proud,” she said. “There’s that level of pride that’s there no matter what.”