Being a billet family for the Knights can create profound relationships between players and Londoners. Lifelong bonds can be formed, emotional connections made that time and distance can’t erase.
And, if you’re really lucky, you can make your neighbour jealous with a cool car.
“I’ve got this brand new Jag sitting in my driveway, and my neighbour goes, ‘What did you do, win the lottery!’ I go, ‘No ‘ compliments of Dennis Wideman!’” said Ron Gabrielli, who billeted the NHL defenceman for four years when he was in London.
“So they’re assuming he bought us this Jag, but I was just juicing him, right? It was just a rental.”
Gabrielli, with wife Susie and daughters Nikki and Dina, billeted Knights players for 10 years. Wideman stayed with them the longest, followed by Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason, who bunked with them for three years.
When asked what the host family gets out of billeting, Gabrielli says “It’s just nice, having another kid in the house.”
“When those kids came to live with us, I’m a straight shooter,” he said. “And it was, ‘Hey, you’re part of this family, here’s the way we live, respect each other and we’ll get along fabulously.’ And we never had an issue.
“You have to treat them like one of your own. That’s the only way, you can’t have two sets of rules.”
Garbielli said Wideman, who played with the Knights from 2000-01 to 2003-04, was like a big brother to his two daughters.
“To this day, we’re very, very close.”
Wideman still calls. Like the time a couple of Christmases ago, when he was with the Boston Bruins.
“He called us up and said, ‘Be ready at six o’clock on such-and-such a date.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Just be ready.’”
A limousine arrived, taking the four Gabriellis to Moxie’s, where Wideman had made reservations.
“We had dinner, Christmas dinner, the four of us as a family, on Dennis,” said Gabrielli. “It’s not the money part of it. The fact that he took the time during his busy schedule to call the restaurant, to make the arrangement.”
And a limo ride home, too.