Being a billet family for a hockey team is a big commitment, and requires almost as much work as the players who are on the ice.
Billet families receive $400 a month to take in two growing boys for eight months, and play a key role in the lives of junior hockey players for a season.
“In terms of a billet, they have to be a family willing to open up their home and bring in literally a stranger from somewhere else for an eight month period,” explained Bonnyville Pontiacs head coach and general manager Rick Swan.
A billet family is also responsible for being a support system, especially for players who travel from far to play here. Luke Israel is from Waterloo, ON and moved over 30 hours away from home to join the Pontiacs.
“Here I live with Sharon Albers. She’s been awesome in my transition here. I remember it being a big a difference jumping up to the level of junior they’re playing here. It’s a strong team and I was having a little bit of trouble adjusting at the start, but she was very supportive and helped me figure things out slowly,” explained Israel.
Albers and her family are also the billets for Pontiac Carter Rhine. She has been a Pontiacs billet for 13 years and understands the challenges of hosting a teenager.
“I make sure that they get fed properly, I make sure that they have nutritious meals, and nutritious snacks. I do the laundry, I make their beds when they’re gone, change their sheets, and just give them as much support as I can,” said Albers.
She added, “The only challenge I’ve ever had is finding food that they all like. Most of them are really good and their really good eaters – I enjoy cooking for them and I love baking. Sometimes you get a boy that is a little on the picky side and, to me, that is a challenge.”
Families interested in becoming a billet have to go through a screening process, which includes having team representatives come to their home. They also have a billet handbook, which they must read and agree to the responsibilities that are listed. This includes making sure the players meet their 10 p.m. curfew on game night and 11 p.m. off-night curfew.
“There is a little bit of a screening process that’s for sure. With placements, in terms of what’s a good fit, we look at allergies, and are they used to an environment with young kids? All those types of things are going to be check boxes with what the players family is looking for as well with the billet,” explained Swan. “Us as an organization make sure we sit in the living room of every billet home to ensure that it’s a good fit for the Bonnyville Pontiacs organization.”
They also ensure that the family is willing to help the player through the highs and lows of playing a high level of hockey.
“The biggest thing is that we have to make sure that these kids have a good place to stay. If things aren’t going well at home then things aren’t going to go well at the rink. We have to have a family that’s eager and understands the demands of a committed Jr. A hockey player,” added Swan.
Albers has done just that with her support of Israel in his first few months in Bonnyville.
“Just texts before the games texts after the games. I’ve had good conversations with her about how I am playing. It’s a real open relationship, it is kind of like I am back at home here,” said Israel.
Israel added that they, “wake up around 6:50 a.m. to eat breakfast and she always has breakfast sandwiches and smoothies made for us.”
Albers also has billeting players do some chores around the house , such as stacking wood. Israel even helped her set up her Christmas tree this year.
“We always have a family dinner; we always sit down and talk. If we’re looking sad or down in the dumps and need to have a chat, she’s always there to talk to, which is really nice to have somebody that supportive,” said Israel.
These players are welcomed as members of the billet’s family.
“Our players go to Christmas concerts because they are now a part of the family, they go to big events that the family has. The players billet siblings are actively involved in what we do here,” said Swan.
Some players on the team even help out with their billet sibling’s minor hockey teams. Those relationships continue even after the players leave Bonnyville.
“Former Pontiacs will come in to visit their billets from the past,” said Swan. “They also come to the games to see how the organization is doing.”
Some Pontiac alumni are so close with their billet families that they invite them to weddings or other big life events that take place after their time as a Pontiac.
The Pontiacs organization is lucky with the amount of people who want to be a billet family to their players. They’re on a waiting list, which Swan said isn’t common among other organizations.
“There is just something about the open arms of a billet family in a small town, we’re very lucky and we have an ideal situation.”
Billets are behind the scenes, but are one of the most important parts of the organization.
“We could have everything in place, the money, the rink, the uniforms, scheduling,” said Swan. “We could have everything here but if we don’t have billets then we don’t have an organization.”