When Antoine Vermette and Karen Bonneau were young, love-struck Canadian teens, Karen's parents
used to ask Antoine what he would do when he grew up.
"I'm playing hockey," Antoine would say.
"No, seriously," Karen's father would respond.
Now, Antoine is married to his childhood sweetheart, and he is the number-one center on the Columbus Blue Jackets-second in scoring last season only to Rick Nash. (He's also a heartthrob in his native, hockey-loving Canada and, as local female fans can attest, in Columbus as well.)
And like many other hockey spouses who must adjust to a mobile lifestyle away from family and friends, Karen-a pharmacist-has put her own career on hold, instead pouring her energy into volunteering around her adopted community of Columbus.
Women married to men involved in professional athletics are part of an exclusive group. They experience glitzy highlights, of course: Antoine and Karen, for example, attended Carrie Underwood's wedding to Antoine's former teammate.
But they also accept lonely nights and occasional public criticism of their spouses as part of the package.
"All these women-they're very unselfish people," said Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson. "They put other people's interests ahead of theirs. And that's not easy to do."
The Canada native who has worked his way up the hockey ranks by managing teams in several cities knows that first-hand. His own wife, Antoinette Mongillo, is an attorney who passed the bar in multiple Canadian provinces before finally putting her career on hold when they moved to Columbus. Antoinette, who practiced corporate commercial law as well as sports and entertainment law, now devotes her time to parenting the couple's three active children, serving on the
Blue Jackets Foundation board (she considers giving back to the fans part of her duty) and helping players' families adjust to life in Columbus.
One of the women she has helped is Marie Garon, whose husband, Mathieu, is a goaltender. Columbus is Mathieu's fifth NHL team, so moving the family-including children who are 6 and 2-has almost become a fulltime job for Marie, who once was a social worker.
"For me, hockey-it's been hard sometimes," Marie said. "But I'm so lucky."
Karen and Antoinette agreed. Sure, they said, they make sacrifices. But they are thankful for the lives they lead.
"We are very grateful," Antoinette said.
The trio of women-all friendly, articulate and open-talked with us about those rink-side lives and the men they share them with.
Karen, Antoine is quite the heartthrob among the female fans. Do
you think of him like that?
Karen: No-not at all (laughing). It's funny you tell me that. He is honestly the best person I have ever met. He is genuinely a good person. I think he is handsome, but I don't think to the point you'd call him a heartthrob. He's really authentic, really smart.
Marie: But every time Antoine is in a place, all the girls are like, "Ahhhhhh." Because he's cute!
Do you ever have to deal with women approaching the guys after games?
Karen: You need a pass from a player (to have access to players), so it never really happens after games. Sometimes in bars. But Antoine and I have been together so long, I think people know he's off the market. I've never had problems with girls. And Antoine is not the kind of guy who would cheat. Hopefully (laughing)!
Marie: I think it's maybe a misconception. It's not like crazy fans or women-it's not like that at all.
What about people in general? Do they stop you in public or at your kids' sporting events?
Antoinette: No. We have had the odd people who want to tell you what they thought of last night's game when you lost. But for the most part, people are really courteous, and they respect the fact that Scott's a dad out to watch his son's game. The parents on our children's teams quickly realize we're just like them, with all the same issues, and they're very respectful. Now, you know, this is Columbus-it's a little different than in Canada.
Karen: Actually, not too much. We're coming from a Canadian team where there was a lot of that. We would go to dinner and people would always come up and talk about the game. Here, it still happens, but people are really polite. It's always really nice, like, "Good game." Antoine wouldn't grocery shop in Canada. He was like, "Oh, I can't go," because people would stop him quite a bit. But now that we're in Columbus, he can grocery shop and he can pick up the dry cleaning and he can do pretty much everything. So he has no more excuses (laughing)!
Marie: It has happened, yes. But it's fine. He likes it-it means people care. Everybody's super nice. That's happened when he goes to drop the kids off at school sometimes: They'll say, "Good game last night." Or they don't say anything if they lost.
Hockey obviously includes some fighting. How do you handle that?
Karen: Antoine is not a fighter. I think he's fought once in the NHL. When I see other players, I can't watch. I close my eyes. It scares me. I know fans like that part of the game, but I could totally live without it.
What are game days like?
Karen: I cook a pre-game meal every game. Even when I was working, I would make it the night before and put it in the fridge. He likes chicken, tomato sauce and pasta.
Marie: He eats my spaghetti sauce. He likes it. It's a routine. He likes when he's by himself a little bit. He's a goalie-he's really serious and focused.
Where do you sit at the arena-and what's it like listening to fans?
Karen: We sit altogether in the stands.
Antoinette: With everyone screaming about how good or bad your husband is.
Karen: I guess you pretend you don't hear or it gets to you.
Marie: (The bad stuff) hurts. I don't read newspapers.
Karen: When it's good, it makes you feel proud. But when it's bad, you know they still tried their best.
Antoinette: It's such an emotional rollercoaster. Those wins and losses-repercussions for us are far greater than for a fan. Our husbands-they could lose their positions; they could lose their jobs.
How do you help your husbands de-stress?
Antoinette: I've been very fortunate. Scott is a very even-keeled person. He's very even-tempered. He's very reserved. And people say, is he like that? They think that's just his public persona, but he's really like that. He works out, and that's how he de-stresses. He'll go for a run. Or he'll play a board game with our daughter Joanna. He really doesn't bring it home. I, on the other hand, I'm Italian-so every emotion is out there whether you like it or not (laughing).
Karen: I'm just there, and I listen. We'll watch some comedy shows on TV. We like "Two and a Half Men." "30 Rock" is good too. And we watch "Entourage."
Marie: I just try to not talk about hockey. We focus on the kids' activities or go to a restaurant.
What do you enjoy doing in Columbus?
Antoinette: We really love live theater, and I love what we have here in Columbus-the variety that we have. And we like to eat. We (also) love to ride our bikes on all the beautiful trails that we have here. My son and I did Pelotonia (a bike race) last year. Most cities don't have such extensive and beautiful bike trails. That's what we spend most of our time doing as a family and even just by ourselves.
Karen: We really like the zoo-we have a membership there, and we love it. We like to go to dinner and a movie. We really like M-it's our favorite restaurant in town. We both really like Figlio. And I've been zip-lining in Hocking Hills-that was great.
Marie: We love to go to Easton-that's one of our favorite places in Columbus. For us, it's like Los Angeles minus the palm trees. And we are French Canadian, which means we love fondue, so we love The Melting Pot.
Tell me something about your husbands that people might not know-something fun.
Karen: Antoine plays Rock Band. He's addicted to it. I think we've bought three or four sets. He always wanted to be a drummer, I guess! He's broken so many sticks.
Marie: When we went to Antoine's birthday party this summer, Rosemary was playing with Rock Band and I was like, "Nooooo!" (laughing)
Antoinette: Scott's a tea drinker. He makes the best cup of tea you will ever have. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke. When he has time, he spends it with his family. He doesn't go golfing with the boys. His clothes are his biggest vice. He exercises every day, he eats healthy-it's disgusting (laughing). Try being married to this guy!
Marie: We bought a lake house two years ago, which was his dream. Now he loves to drive the boat, entertain.
Do your husbands do any chores?
Antoinette: Like I always say to people, I brought the toolbox into the family (laughing). I think these player wives-or really anybody whose husband is traveling a lot-they have to be strong, independent women.
Karen: If there's a light bulb that needs changed, I change it. There was a doorknob that was not working this weekend-I fixed it. When the garbage needs taken out, he'll help me take it out. But he's a clean guy, so I can't complain. He's really organized-he puts the dirty clothes in the basket, the clean clothes in the closet, the dishes in the dishwasher, the keys in the drawers. He's not helping, but he's not making it bad.
Marie: Here, not that much, because he's really busy with the season. But in Quebec, when he's off, he's really good. And when he's home, my son and my daughter go to school, so we need to pack lunches, and he loves to do that. With the kids he is really helpful. He loves to drop them off and pick them up from school. They love it.
Who controls the finances in your home?
Antoinette: Me. Here's what Scott does: Scott works and he knows hockey and he watches hockey-and the Cincinnati Reds. Everything else is me. Of course, we don't do anything without talking to the other person.
Karen: We make all the big decisions together. In the end, he's managing his money in the big picture, but the little things, the bills-I do it. Antoine is great. Obviously he makes good money, so he buys his family amazing gifts. And even my family-he got them a trip to Disneyland. He's really generous-beyond generous-with everyone. But I always feel guilty putting my name on the card, like, "Here-I gave you a trip to Disneyland!" So at holidays I'll get them something else, like a small gift from me, with my money, so it's my gift. Right now, I can afford to do it, so it works well.
Marie: He takes care of all of our American life-the bank accounts here and everything that is here. And I take care of our Quebec life, our Canadian life.
Any plans to eventually practice law in the States, Antoinette?
Antoinette: I was not prepared to do this (be a homemaker). Some women are. My brother is a handyman who taught me how to use every power tool because there was an assumption I would never be married (laughing). So I would like to work. I might ride the bar.
You're obviously very smart. Does Scott ever run trades or decisions by you?
Antoinette: No! We talk about the team and we talk about players and we talk about concepts. But as far as, "Should I do this or not?" No. But he will say, "(A certain player) is available. We're thinking of taking him." I'm like, "Oh, he's got a great wife! He's such a great guy." He doesn't rely on my hockey expertise-because I don't have any hockey expertise (laughing). But most of the time, we don't have time to talk about hockey, because we're talking about who's got what homework due, and what can he do and what can I do.
What's it like moving so often?
Marie: It's like my job. It's hard, because you have to start all over again. You get help. And you ask for help the older you get. When I came here, Antoinette was really nice. You have to find a new school, new doctors, new dentists. You have a couple of weeks to move everything.
Antoinette: What makes it hard is that we have no family. We're always the new people in town. You've got no one to call when you're feeling crappy to say, "Can you just come over and take care of the puking kids?" It's not that people aren't friendly or helpful. But when you're sick, you don't call your acquaintances.
Karen, you were working as a pharmacist when Antoine signed his contract to play major league hockey. At the signing, you cried, and the media proclaimed how happy you were. But you say that wasn't really the case
Karen: I was crying. Everyone said, "She's so happy!" I was so mad. I had studied so hard, and now he was making more money than me. It's hard, in a way, to make your own way along with your husband. You don't want to lose yourself.
How would you describe the women in Columbus?
Antoinette: I just love the women I've met here. I'm impressed at how multi-faceted a lot of them are. I think that is the U.S., though: Even the working moms, they are involved in the community and what their kids are doing. I find them really interesting, easy and friendly.
Karen: When we moved here, we had cookies on the front porch to welcome us to the neighborhood. People open doors for you, and they're really polite too-saying hi, smiling. I went to Home Depot, and people came up asking if I needed anything, and I was like, "Wow-this is great!"
Marie: I'm meeting other women through Charles' hockey and Charles' school because I'm volunteering a little bit there. I would say they are really involved in their kids' lives. Everywhere I go, everybody's super nice.
Though you have made sacrifices, you're all grateful for the chance to enjoy a nice lifestyle. What are the best parts?
Karen: We have friends from everywhere.
Marie: My son is in first grade, and he is open to the world.
Antoinette: As difficult as it is on our children, it's good for them in the long run. (Another) great thing is being part of that hockey family. And I don't mean just your team. There's something about being part of that group that's something special.
Karen: Our husbands do what they like. It's a good life. It's their dream. They're happy-that makes us happy.