In Praise of Billets

Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2008

By Lucas Aykroyd

Caring host families make a huge difference for young WHLers

When New York Rangers forward Scott Gomez was interviewed between periods on a recent Hockey Night in Canada telecast, the former Tri-City American made a point of saying hi to his billet family from his junior days.

This two-time Stanley Cup champion and 2000 Calder Trophy winner is earning a whopping $10 million US in 2007-08. You might think Gomez would be too preoccupied with winning NHL games and weighing new endorsement offers to bother with people that hosted him a decade ago. But you’d be wrong.

In an era where kids frequently make friends through Internet sites like Facebook and MySpace, the WHL’s billet family system offers proof that actual face-to-face connections are still the most powerful.

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a star like Gomez or a role player like Derek Boogaard. Now arguably the NHL’s most feared enforcer, the 6′7″, 270-pound Minnesota Wild winger reveals a different side of his personality when he discusses Jim and Julie MacIver and Mike and Karen Tobin, the two couples who opened up their homes to him during his 1999-2001 stint with the Prince George Cougars.

“It’s always tough leaving home when you’re 16 or 17 years old and living with new people,” said the Saskatoon native. “But the junior teams find great families you can stay with. That helped me a lot.”

Boogaard still keeps in touch with his old billets every couple of months: “They’ve been really excited every time I’ve called. They’re just happy to talk and go over old stories from when I played up there.”

Staying with the right family is also huge for European players, who must acclimatize to the Canadian lifestyle. Even though Martin Hanzal only spent eight months with Brian and Mary Olajos in Red Deer, the support the Czech centre got from the two local schoolteachers surely assisted him en route to becoming the leading scorer for the Rebels in 2006-07 with 85 points.

“It was the first time they’d hosted a hockey player, but they took very good care of me,” said Hanzal, now flourishing as a Phoenix Coyotes rookie. “They always asked me a lot of questions, like about what I wanted to eat, and helped me with my laundry and my English. My best memory was probably celebrating Thanksgiving. We don’t have Thanksgiving in the Czech Republic, so it was something new for me. We had a great meal with a big turkey.”

At times, the young WHLers manage to give something back to their billets, whether it’s playing with the family’s children, or even rescuing a household pet. During his time with the Rebels, Washington Capitals winger Boyd Gordon once returned to his billet home and discovered the dog had got his head stuck in a potato chip bag and was asphyxiating. “I pulled the bag off him just in time, and he was breathing hard for probably an hour,” Gordon said. “So that’s probably the most heroic thing I guess I’ve done.”

But usually, it’s about the families doing all they can to make life more comfortable for these prospects. That’s particularly important since they’re going through vital formative years. That proved true for two stars from the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

Joe Sakic went to the Swift Current Broncos in 1986 as a shy 17-year-old, and being accustomed to mild West Coast weather, the future NHL legend didn’t think about putting anti-freeze in his car. “The temperature dropped down to 30 below one night, and we had a whole work party out on the street with blowtorches working on his car,” recalled Colleen MacBean, Sakic’s billet mom in Swift Current.

Calgary Hitmen defenseman Karl Alzner, who captained Team Canada to gold at the 2008 World Juniors, was instantly at ease when he arrived at the home of Jackie and Kevin Drake as a 16-year-old. Why? His new bedroom coincidentally contained the same sports-flavored wallpaper as he had back home in Burnaby.

Vancouver has been in the junior hockey spotlight recently, hosting the 2005 CHL Top Prospects game, the 2006 World Juniors, and the 2007 Memorial Cup. Billet families may not grab headlines, but for both the Giants, the defending Memorial Cup champions, and their neighbouring rivals, the Chilliwack Bruins, they’re an indispensable piece of the puzzle.

Just how do you get to be a billet family? “The first thing we do is inquire if the existing billets are coming back,” explained Bruins office manager Andrea Laycock. “Then we know how many more we need to get. If necessary, we advertise to our existing season ticket base, as well as through minor hockey and soccer, that we’re looking for billet families. It’s an ongoing process.”

General manager Darrell Hay and coach Jim Hiller visit prospective billets in their homes to interview them and confirm they’re offering a positive environment. The Bruins have about 25 primary billet families, and perhaps five more for players that come on a temporary basis. Some families host two players: Oscar Moller and Matt Meroupilis share the same billets this year, and ditto for Ryan Howse and Brayden Metz.

It’s truly a labour of love. In return for housing, feeding, and monitoring the education of the players, WHL billet families receive season tickets and a monthly stipend that typically runs around $300. (A political firestorm erupted in 2005 when Revenue Canada looked into taxing families for that income, but billeting is not the road to riches, simply when you consider how much the players eat and drink.)

“There are more challenges in a bigger market,” added Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay. “There are more opportunities for people to open up their homes in Vancouver, like bringing in college students. All our players are placed in the suburbs of Ladner and Tsawwassen, and they go to South Delta High School. They’re all within seven miles of each other.”

That policy of proximity has built team tightness and kept Vancouver’s championship-winning players focused on hockey. Even Gilbert Brule, who hails from North Vancouver, moved in with Delta school board trustee Heather King and her husband Dean when he was with the Giants. King still fondly remembers hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, from helping him with Biology 11 to making his favourite meal of chicken and mashed potatoes.

Without billets, Canadian junior hockey couldn’t function the way it does today. Through the good times and the bad, families and players forge bonds that last a lifetime.

A Book About Unsung Heroes

Home Away From Home: A Tribute to the Real Heroes in the Game of Hockey is the title of Barret Kropf’s 2006 self-published book about WHL billet families. “The off-ice network they create for the kids is phenomenal,” said the former junior player from Caronport, Saskatchewan. The 12-chapter, hardcover book covers everything from tragedy (the 1986 bus accident that claimed the lives of four Swift Current players) to happy endings (Vancouver Canucks prospect Jason Jaffray married the daughter of his Kootenay billets). To order your copy, check with your local WHL franchise, visit www.hockeyhomes.com, fax 1-800-394-4701, or phone (306) 756-2557.

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