The billet experience is a part of playing for the Halifax Mooseheads people rarely get to see or appreciate.
Players who aren’t from the metro Halifax area are housed with local families during the long QMJHL season, often starting as young as 16 years old. Many of the kids come from Quebec, the United States or as far away as Europe so it’s a significant adjustment in their lives.
Out of necessity and circumstance, the folks who invite them to live under their roofs become a de facto family almost overnight and it’s common for everyone involved to maintain strong ties long after the players’ junior careers end.
“My family, they’re in Quebec and obviously this year they can’t visit but usually they come once or twice. Billet families are really important. They make sure they’re treating us really well and obviously in most of the cases they are. We’re so lucky to have them.”
– Alexis Gravel, Mooseheads goalie
But the closeness between goalie Alexis Gravel and his billet dad Phil O’Hara goes another level beyond the usual relationship. Gravel lived with O’Hara and his wife Janet for two seasons but found out last January Phil had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The news shook Gravel but he responded by immediately trying to find ways to help.
He launched a GoFundMe campaign that went on to exceed the $5,000 target and, along with housemate and teammate Jason Horvath, shaved his head so Phil’s chemotherapy wouldn’t make him the only member of the household with no hair.
“I was really surprised,” Gravel said of the response to the fundraising campaign. “I wasn’t expecting that much that fast. People were really generous and I was so grateful for it. I couldn’t believe it. For him, his biggest reaction was when I shaved my head for him. He really loved that. Of course he was super happy and really grateful.”
Even though Gravel reports Phil’s treatments over the past year-plus have seen more successes than failures, the 21-year-old goaltender couldn’t return to live with the O’Haras this season because Phil remains immuno-compromised. That was too much risk for Gravel’s comfort level, especially with the added threat of potential COVID-19 infection.
“Plus he moved to Halifax so it’s harder,” Gravel said. “The billets are usually in Dartmouth and obviously I’ve tried to talk to him a little bit during the season but it was harder for him. He offered for me (to live with him again) but it was harder for him to have me at home and if something happens it can be really stressful as a student and a player. I chose to move for this year but we stay in touch and he’s doing well.”
The latest updates from O’Hara on social media and his blog ‘Living Life to the Fullest’ detail the latest phases of his treatment, which still appear to be focused mostly on chemo. He posted that he also underwent surgery on his esophagus and stomach back in May but his writings always reflect high spirits and an optimistic outlook.
He also makes regular mentions of Gravel, Horvath and former Mooseheads winger Ostap Safin, who lived with Gravel and the O’Haras in 2018-19. The theme of the posts is always centred around pride and love for the players, referring to the them as “honourary O’Haras for life.”
“So I keep saying how I’m wrapped in love and support. From the moment I shared my diagnosis with Alexis Gravel, he has been a rock of support in our household,” Phil wrote on Facebook last season.
“We think of our billets as if they are family members. We celebrate their wins. We console their loses. We tend their injuries. We call them out when they break curfew. Most importantly, we provide them with a safe haven out of the limelight. I’m so glad to have both Alexis and his roommate Jason Horvath under our roof.”
Gravel enthusiastically reciprocates those feelings, going on at length about how important the O’Haras are to him and calling them his second family.
“My family, they’re in Quebec and obviously this year they can’t visit but usually they come once or twice,” Gravel said, referring to the added obstacle of COVID-19 travel restrictions. “Billet families are really important. They make sure they’re treating us really well and obviously in most of the cases they are. We’re so lucky to have them.
“You live with the person and you get pretty close really quick. It’s not like you see them once in a while; you live with them. So even though you don’t live there for that long, personally, I think you get close quick. I was obviously really close with Phil.”
Gravel keeps close tabs on Phil’s condition and mentioned how thin he is after so many months of treatment. O’Hara recently posted that at 137 pounds, he now weighs half as much as he did just four years ago.
“I talked to him on my birthday a couple of days ago and he’s doing fine,” said Gravel, who become an ambassador for Hockey Gives Blood after taking note of Phil’s commitment to donation drives. “I’m supposed to get supper with him soon so he’s doing good. Obviously he’s doing better so it’s really good news and I’m really happy about that.”