It’s a title reserved for the guy who scores the golden goal, or the game seven overtime winner, or the guy that with one or two thunderous body checks changes the complexion of the game that leads his team to victory, or the goaltender coming out of nowhere to make save after save and steal a win his team had no business winning.
Sometimes it’s reserved for the trainers that work all hours of the day getting equipment ready. Sometimes it’s the physio-therapist who mends an injury. Rarely do you ever hear about someone as an unsung hero in the sport that never touches the ice, never runs a practice, never gets equipment ready and rarely sees the inside of the dressing room.
They are the Billet Families.
And they number literally in the thousands across Canada. They take in and house kids from Canadian Major Junior, Junior A and Junior B all across the country. Some have been doing it for years. Some are just starting out.
Over the years of following hockey I have had an incredible admiration for these families and the role they play in the success of a young hockey player. Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player in the game today, spent the majority of his adolescent years with billet families. Where would he be today without them?
And the bond that is formed between player and billet lasts a lifetime. Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made sure his billet family was front and center at his recent wedding and among his 250 guests. And he made sure to invite them to a family only brunch the day after his wedding. The stories are endless, the memories last a lifetime.
So just what is involved in being a billet?
Jason Lott is Director of Hockey Operations for the Junior B Stratford Cullitons of the GOHL. The Cullitons are a franchise deep in tradition and success and have produced some great NHL talent such as Chris Pronger, Ed Olczyk, Greg deVries, Rob Blake and many more. Lott told us “If we don't have any billet families, our team would be a lot different and not nearly as successful. We will always have good local players but for our team to compete with the bigger centres in our league we need the import players and we need billet families for those players.
Laurie Cossey and her husband John have three children off to University, but along with youngest son Michael who is 13, have been billets for the Cullitons for the past 3 seasons. They’ve billeted Ray Huether now playing for the Sudbury Wolves and Liam Maaskant of the Erie Otters. This season the Cossey’s are providing a home for Ryan Watson.
We had an in depth chat with Cossey about among other things, the impact on the player and the billet family.
ITO: You billeted Ray Huether the past two seasons. What types of adjustments does a family have to make for a player coming into your home for the first time as opposed to a player returning?
Cossey: Ray was our full time billet the past two years. When a billet first arrives the first week or so can be a bit awkward - but as the days go by you get to know each other. It takes the player some time to get used to living within the dynamics of a family other than their own; and your own family adjusts to having another person around. When the second season rolls around though it's a pretty smooth transition — almost like having one of your own family members return home after an absence. With Ray, this transition was exceptionally smooth given we had become good friends with the Huether family and had kept in touch throughout the summer months. Since Ray had stayed with us until school was done in June, he had really only been gone two months when he returned in September — it was like he was coming home after being away at summer camp!
ITO: Do you play any role in the educational opportunities available to the young player or is it something the team handles exclusively?
Cossey: The Stratford Hockey Club places education very high on its list of priorities. While older players may already be out in the work force or pursuing post secondary education, younger players are expected to attend high school and the club keeps a pretty close eye on things. The Education Liaison (George Van Slyck) is in regular contact with the school in Stratford that most players still in high school attend. As parents of course we encourage our billets to make sure they give school the attention it needs — a sometimes difficult task when players are so focussed on hockey and see it as their future. The additional challenge for players of course is finding the time to do homework and assignments around their hockey schedule — it's not unusual for the Cullitons to be on the ice 6 day a week. Many Saturday mornings (after a late Friday night game) we would come downstairs to find our weekends billet Liam or Ryan sitting in one of our massage chairs with their binder propped up on their lap trying to get some school work done before heading out to Saturday morning practice. Not your typical Saturday morning for a 16 or 17 year old!
ITO: Can you give us a sense of the routine the family goes through on a game day?
Cossey: From what we've seen, routine for the player generally centers on food and rest! Our players tend to enjoy a cap nap in the afternoon and prefer a relatively light meal before going to the arena. The day before a game we try to follow the recommended protein-carb meal plan for dinner (the Stratford Hockey Club offers nutritional seminars to players, parents and billet families at the start of every season) and then the day of it's a matter of working out when the best time for the player to eat is. Unfortunately the ideal time for the player to eat is not usually the ideal time for your family to eat so as billet 'mom' you often find yourself making two meals on game day (and often practice days too!) — one for the player and then one for the rest of the family. Meals are one of the biggest challenges when billeting players. When the team has an away game the players often take a packed meal for the bus or will pick up a sub or sandwich on their way down to the arena to catch the bus. An away game routine for me is to make my players a fresh fruit salad - they will often eat it on the bus or even at the arena before the game or in between periods. Food and rest aside, it has been our experience that players definitely vary in preparing for any game - some prefer quiet time and don't want to talk about it; others get themselves pumped up by chatting about it. Table tennis (Ping-pong) in our house is often the ritual just before leaving to the arena... we've learnt that hockey players are very competitive (and very good I might add) table tennis players and the chirping around the table is almost as bad as it is on the ice some days!
ITO: I’ve been to many playoff games where whole families come out. We’ve sat in restaurants and had dinner and the players always have their billets with them. You’re not just a second family to them, but to them, truly are family. Give us a sense of what that feels like.
Cossey: It's a great feeling to play a role in someone's dream. As a parent there is nothing more rewarding than watching a child reach the various steps of their goals... and as a billet parent you get to not only observe, but play a part in making it happen. For our son Michael, our billets play the role of older brothers. He looks forward to their company and misses them if they have a few days off and decide to go home for a visit. After having had Ray live with us for the better part of two years, he and Michael got along like brothers... and sometimes squabbled like brothers too! Michael really felt a void the past two summers when the hockey season ended and looked forward to the winter when not only he returned to the ice but when the downstairs basement had a Culliton sleeping in it (and often a few of his teammates too). And of course he thinks it’s 'rather cool' to have a Culliton living with us; especially when there is a road hockey game to be had! Thankfully every player we have met has been friendly and aware that children like Michael, especially those that play hockey, look up to them — most are quiet conscious that they are role models. The hockey world as most know can be pretty intense; but the rewards are plenty. We've met some great players and their families and made some great friends in the process.
ITO: For many of these young players, it’s the first time away from home on their own so to speak. It can be emotionally tough on them and your family. How do you balance it all?
Cossey: Understanding is important. One of the first things we came to appreciate was what these hockey players truly give to their sport. Since some as young as 16 play Junior, as a billet parent you see firsthand what these players go through. At 16, in addition to the pressures and expectations of a new, higher level hockey team, these players move away from home, to a new city, to a new school and in with a family they do not know. Add all that to the normal things a teenager goes through and you've got yourself a potentially tenuous situation. It takes a determined, focussed and dedicated individual to make their way through it all. One cannot help but admire the character of these players. As far as your own family goes they need to adjust to having a new person in the home — one that at times gets catered to. Until we had our first billet, our son Michael was essentially an only child — his older siblings having left to University when he was quite young. Michael needed to adjust to having our attentions divided between he and Ray. The world no longer revolved exclusively around him. In the big picture this was a blessing; we were able to look after Ray and Michael learnt how lending a hand (and a home) can be rewarding. Having a billet we also discovered responsibility is two-fold... for the player's parents you take on the responsibility of helping raise their child; for the team you take on the responsibility of ensuring their player is given everything they need at home in order to perform on the ice. And somewhere in the middle of it all you find a balance that works for your family.
ITO: Do you help in the recruitment of players? Meaning, do you meet the players before they make the team and discuss things like school, the city etc?
Cossey: The team has its own recruitment staff and they meet with the players during the tryout process to ensure they understand the team's expectations both on and off the ice. Once signed, the team will then work with the Billet Coordinator to find a suitable family.
ITO: As billet coordinator, John has the task of matching players with billet families. How is that process done?
Cossey: Once a player has been signed, the Director of Hockey Operations/General Manager (Jason Lott) will generally provide the Billet Coordinator with details about a player in need of a billet home. Things like the player's age, whether they drive, whether they have their own vehicle, are they working or still in school are all taken into account. Available homes are then matched as best as possible to each player. For example, a younger player who does not drive yet is more likely to be placed in a home closer to the school they will be attending than a home further away. Before being placed in a home, the player and their parents will meet at the potential billet's home to ensure everyone is comfortable with each other and that the home offers a comfortable environment. Basic values and expectations of the player, the player's parents and the billet family are all discussed and taken into account to ensure a suitable match. Police record checks are done on all families who billet.
ITO: I’m sure some team rules are different than your own rules at home, for example curfew, or even what they can and cannot eat? Is it a tough balancing act?
Cossey: At the beginning it can be a challenge. Learning what a person likes and doesn't like takes some time and you also need to be practical... for example, you can't cater to everyone at the table so you try to find family favourites that your billeted player also likes. You definitely become more conscious about not only what the player should eat, but subsequently what your own family eats as well. As far as expectations in the home, it is expected that the player will abide by the rules of your home. Basic ground rules, expectations and curfews are discussed when the player and parents first meet with the potential billet family... discussions at this point helps determine if the player and the potential billet family are a good match. When a situation arises that needs to be addressed, you work through it as you would with any other family member. In rare cases when a third party is needed to work through a situation, the hockey club provides support and the parents would be contacted to help work though any problems. Good communication with both the player and his parents definitely help ensure things run smoothly.
ITO: I have yet to meet a billet family that seeks accolades for what they do. But is the satisfaction you get knowing that a lot of young players would be very limited in their chances to move on and further their hockey careers without people such as yourself more than enough?
Cossey: The expression "It takes a village to raise a child" certainly applies in hockey — from parents, coaches and trainers to equipment handlers and arena staff — they all play a part. And so do billet families. Billet families help provide a comfortable home environment that allows the player to excel. Generally speaking at this level of hockey the financial incentive to billet barely, if at all, covers your costs. You choose to billet players because you have an interest in helping — and we are fortunate in being able to help in a sport that we love. Two of our billets have moved on to Junior A — it's a great feeling knowing that you helped them along the way. And its a really great feeling when you get that unexpected text or visit from them (or their parents)... knowing that you are still in the back of their mind despite their busy schedule and budding hockey career.
ITO: Your husband John is billet coordinator for the Stratford Cullitons. The Cullitons have a long and storied tradition and both a successful franchise and respected one. Is it hard to recruit a billet? Given how busy folks are these days it is a bit of a challenge to find billet homes at times.
Cossey: Season-to-season the number of billet homes needed in Stratford varies. Sometimes only 4 or 5 homes are all that are needed and your go-to billet families can accommodate the out-of-town players for that season. The following season however you might need 8 or 10 — and that takes a bit more work. Word of mouth goes a long way and we get a lot of support from our local newspaper when we are in need of extra homes. Billeting appeals to different types — from homes like ours where there are only one or two children left at home and have a spare bedroom or two to empty nesters looking to liven up their homes to retirees just wanting to help out. There are also former hockey players who have gone through the system and want to give back.
ITO: If someone was considering becoming a billet and you had the opportunity to say whatever you wanted to them, what would that be?
Cossey: If you have the space and the opportunity... billet a hockey player! It's a bit of work but an amazing and very rewarding experience!
In closing, Cossey had this to add: Hockey is an intense sport. And as a billet you ride the roller coaster with your player. You feel pride in their accomplishments and tremendously happy for them when they experience success. But you also live through their disappointment after a bad game, or the frustration of an injury, or get sent home from training camp of the OHL team that drafted them. And you live through the intensity surrounding decisions that need to be made when one of their dreams finally come close to being realized... the joy of getting 'the call from the O' followed by the complex and intricate business of understanding contracts and the ramifications of playing or not playing [re: NCAA ineligibility etc] — adult decisions that sometimes players as young as 16 or 17 have to make. These young men work exceptionally hard and live with constant pressure to perform; one can't help admire them for what they give to play the sport they love. And it’s great having someone with those traits living in your home and setting an example for your child.
So the next time you watch a hockey game at any level, give some thought about the route those players took – and the thankless job the billets did in helping them achieve their goals.