Good people are the backbone of junior hockey and that doesn’t stop at the doors of the arena.
In fact, it begins in the community and on the front steps of each and every billet home.
Without a friendly face, familiar roof and warm bed at the end of each night, junior hockey players would be left in the cold, many away from home while not only facing the challenge of a full-on hockey schedule, but also juggling academics and the task of learning to live independently for the first time.
Navigating a life of independence is enough of a challenge for anyone, forget about having to balance hockey and school on top of it all.
With the East Kootenay serving as home to a pair of local junior hockey clubs — the WHL’s Kootenay Ice and KIJHL’s Kimberley Dynamiters — there is always a need for billet families and the outlook heading into the 2016-17 hockey season is no different.
“It gives our guys a home away from home,” said Chris Wahl, director of sales and public relations for the Kootenay Ice. “For some of these guys, they’re leaving their homes for the first time. It’s important for them to have a place where they can feel secure and comfortable. That translates into their performance on the ice.
“Being a billet family is definitely intensive work, but at the same time, it can provide lifelong memories and lifelong relationships as well.”
With at least 20 to 23 players on an active roster, an ideal world sees each team with 20 to 23 billet families, though it isn’t uncommon for many homes to house more than one player.
Every situation is unique and according to Wahl, there is a very detailed process when it comes to assigning players and ensuring that the circumstance is a good fit, both for the family and the young hockey player.
While the WHL’s Ice are in need of billet families in the Cranbrook area, just up the highway, the Junior B Dynamiters are also in need of billets in the Kimberley area.
“Dedicated billet families are so crucial to the success of the organization,” said Karrie Hall, secretary for the Dynamiters and formerly the team’s billet coordinator, in September 2015. “You can never have too many quality billet families… That sort of family atmosphere helps our players grow into men off the ice, while allowing them to strive for success on the ice.”
Hall isn’t just speaking from the position of someone previously tasked with finding billet homes for young athletes. This past season, she housed two Dynamiters billets in her own home.
Also in Kimberley, Iona and Lyle Prier celebrated 20 seasons as a billet family this past year. If anyone in the East Kootenay can tell you about the rewards to being a junior hockey billet family, it’s the Priers.
“We have been blessed,” Lyle said in September 2015. “I keep telling the billet coordinator she gives us the best boys each season.
“I thank the Lord that we’ve been able to do it… It’s been great.”
With training camps right around the corner — the Kootenay Ice open camp Aug. 28 and the Kimberley Dynamiters open their doors Aug. 26 — the search for billet families in both communities gets greater by the day.
Billet families for both organizations are provided with monthly stipends to help cover the costs associated with providing a welcoming home.
Junior hockey players range from 16 to 20 years of age. As a result, many attend local high schools, while those who have graduated often tackle part-time studies at post-secondary institutions such as College of the Rockies.
Players typically come from western Canada, the United States and, in some cases, Europe.
Folks interested in supporting the Ice in the role of a billet family are encouraged to contact Wahl (250-417-0322; email@example.com) or visit the Kootenay Ice office located inside Western Financial Place.
Those interested in supporting the Dynamiters as a billet family are encouraged to contact billet coordinator Jodi L’Heureux (250-427-9833; firstname.lastname@example.org).
“Really, the intangibles are why a lot of people do it,” Wahl said. “It can range from anything to the feeling of wanting to give back or to the feeling of wanting to become a part of the team in more than just coming to the games.
“Those lifelong relationships can happen and can be a pretty positive experience, not just for the player, but for the families that host them as well.”