Hockey Players Find a Home in Ann Arbor

Local host families "adopt" teens of USA Hockey program
Michael and Will

Michael Paliotta and his younger brother Will in the lobby of the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. Michael's family was visiting from Connecticut – he lives in Ann Arbor with a host family while participating in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program here. (Photo by the writer.)

In a lobby filled with well-dressed young men, proud parents and assorted siblings, Gene and Sue Salaniuk stood back together and took in the scene.

They watched as Michael Paliotta, one of two teenage hockey players who currently lives in their house, talked with his parents amid a cluster of family members – two brothers and a sister – who’d made the trip to Ann Arbor from Westport, Conn., just to watch him play.

Six-year-old Will Paliotta stuck close, quietly playing with the buttons on his big brother’s suit jacket.

“I think Michael misses his brothers and sister,” Sue said softly, leaning toward Gene. He nodded and said, “Look how Will won’t let go of him.”

Two months ago, these people were strangers. But for the Salaniuks, Michael is now one of “their” kids; Will and the rest of the Paliottas are one of “their” families.

The Salaniuks have been hosting hockey players from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in their Ann Arbor home for 13 years. Every few years they’ll tell the program’s housing coordinators that this will be their last. Then another bunch of 16- and 17-year olds come in and, well, they haven’t said, “no” yet. Their hockey family just keeps growing.

“We knew we were getting the kids; we didn’t know we were getting the families, too,” Sue said. “These families tend to be really close-knit and supportive; to get a player to this level they really have to be, so you see the families a lot. We’ve met a lot of nice families and nice boys.”

Players come from all over the country to play on the NTDP Under-17 and Under-18 teams, and accepting a spot means leaving home as a high school junior to live and train in Ann Arbor. The Salaniuks weren’t particularly interested in hockey when they answered an advertisement for NTDP billet families. But their middle child had just left home; their youngest was a high school sophomore. They’d had teenagers around for several years already, and it seemed like a nice chance to get to know people from other places – like an exchange student without the language barrier.

There are 44 teens in the program this year, living with 33 local host families. The hardest part might be the cooking, since players down 5,000-6,000 calories a day. The program gives billet families a $305 monthly stipend to help cover the cost.

“In a typical day they each eat about twice the amount of food I’d cook for one person,” Sue said.

But coming home to good company and a hot meal means a lot to a 16-year-old who may have never spent more than a few weeks away from home. And the relationships that develop between billet families and player families make that transition easier on both ends.


Robbie Russo, part of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, playing at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. His family lives in Chicago, and he stays with an Ann Arbor host family while training here. (Photo by the writer.)

“Robbie was on his way home from camp when he called and said they’d offered him a spot (in the program),” said Debbie Russo, whose son also stays with the Salaniuks. “The rest of the day I felt sick to my stomach.

“But it was great once we met Sue and Gene. They made it a lot easier, and when we heard they’d been doing it so long … I mean obviously they’re good people if they keep asking them to do this.”

Thanks to a weekend home series with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL earlier this month, both the Russos and the Paliottas are in the stands when The Chronicle meets Sue outside the Ann Arbor Ice Cube’s stadium rink. She finds Debbie Russo, along with a gaggle of Russo family and friends who’ve made the trip from Chicago, and we sit down to chat.

It’s good hockey, and we talk about the quality of play, the previous night’s game (a 5-1 loss) and the fact that the NTDP teams regularly play older, more experienced opponents.

“The speed and athleticism is really impressive,” says Sue, a yoga instructor. “I’ve gotten used to the violence. It still bothers me, but some of the NHL fathers we’ve had say it keeps the really nasty stuff from building up. I don’t know. I still don’t like it.”

Sue points out that most of the Green Bay Gamblers don’t have full shields on their helmets, which means they’re over 18. Minors have to wear a full facemask, she explains. Once they turn 18 a lot of players opt for a half shield that just protect their eyes.

Russo turns to The Chronicle and we shrug simultaneously: “I didn’t know that.”

Sue’s on to a motherly discussion of a chest cold that’s going around when defenseman Barrett Kaib runs a Gambler into the boards right in front of us.


Michael Paliotta (54) on the ice during a game against the Green Bay Gamblers. (Photo by the writer.)

“Ohhhh Barrett!” she hollers, clapping as the walls echo the hit.

Kaib spends so much time at the Salaniuks that Sue has started calling him “our third kid.”

“He was really steamed after the last game,” she says “He’s such a quiet little kid… very polite.”

It takes a village to develop a national team, and billet parents play a lot of roles – chaperone, ambassador, sounding board. They go to Pioneer High School curriculum nights and parent-teacher conferences, help players with neckties when it’s time to go to the rink on game day.

Gene, a retired American Airlines pilot, volunteers to work the penalty box at home games.

“I get to talk to the boys when they come to visit,” he says with a mischievous smile.

Gene and Sue’s hockey family includes “boys” at Harvard, Yale, the University of Maine and the University of Wisconsin. They have one playing in London, Ontario in the Ontario Hockey League and a couple who’ve bounced back and forth between the American Hockey League and the National Hockey League. One calls almost every week.

Robbie, Sue informs us, has already committed to Notre Dame.

“That’s our third Notre Dame player,” Sue says. “We had one that graduated with honors.”

Only their own kids can say if Gene and Sue have always been this adept at dealing with teenagers, but you get the feeling very little rattles them. Whether it’s the demands of the NTDP schedule or general teenage barrier-testing, they’ve been there.

Once or twice Gene’s had to to reel in a kid who tried to sneak out after curfew, and every now and then a player will arrive back in Ann Arbor on Christmas day because the team leaves for a European tournament on Dec. 26.

“We just fill an extra stocking,” Sue says.

Sue talking to Trish Paliotta. (family l-r is Trish, Kate, Mike, Danny, with Will in front)

Sue Salaniuk, far left, talks to Trish Paliotta during a recent hockey game at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. Paliotta's son Michael lives with the Salaniuks in Ann Arbor while taking part in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program here. The Paliottas are from Connecticut – sitting next to Trish are Kate, Mike, and Danny, with Will in front. (Photo by the writer.)

When Michael Paliotta earned a spot in the NTDP, his family threw a party and decorated the house in red, white and blue. His brother, Danny, baked a cake and his dad made a toast. Michael stood up and told everyone that this was his dream.

Trish Paliotta remembers when he was four and he’d come and sit on their bed at 4:30 a.m., fully dressed, ready for someone to take him to the rink.

“Neither of us knew anything about hockey,” she said. “I really thought it was a flash in the pan. I thought he’d find another sport, I really did.”

But now he’s living his dream. What can you do but haul the family 600 miles when there’s a chance to be together and trust he’ll be treated like family when you’re not there?

“I know they keep a close eye on the boys, but give them a little bit of leash, too,” Trish said. “We hear that Gene is a great cook, that Sue is easy to talk to, that Gene’s got a great sense of humor… So far it’s been a great experience. He’s really proud to wear the uniform, and I sleep well. I know he’s safe and still enjoying himself. It’s one of those opportunities of a lifetime.”

About the author: Amy Whitesall is a freelance writer based in Chelsea.