Minor hockey players have it easy relatively speaking. They live at home with their parents, commuting to the arena as required. Once they move into junior hockey though, things change. Some players are able to reside at home with their parents.
For many players who are forced to relocate to a different city or province, things are different. These boys require a healthy home environment to sleep, eat, and relax in during the rigors of a BC Hockey League season. Most of the time, these young men reside with billets.
Benefits of billeting
The BCHL recently partnered with Save On Foods and created the “Billet Family of the Week” program. This initiative rewarded the efforts of billet families throughout the league during the pod season. One billet family for each team was selected and recognized for their off-ice efforts in housing players from each team in the league.
Each team in the BCHL operates a bit differently, but most offer the billet family season tickets, a monthly financial stipend of some sort, and a billet recognition night. Funds from sponsors are often allocated for distribution to billets.
The BCHL and @saveonfoods have partnered to recognize billet families from across the league with the Billet Family of the Week award.
This week's winners are:
Aaron & Cora Williamson (COQ)
Gord & Anne-Marie Milne (PR)
Jim & Bonnie Turton (SUR)
— BCHL (@BCHockeyLeague) April 14, 2021
Coquitlam Express billet coordinator Teresa Battista looks at a number of things when determining billet viability.
“We look for individuals (who) truly want to make a difference in a young man’s life. I look for a family (who) will treat their billet son as part of their family and include them in their daily lives.”
The Battista family itself has been in the business of billeting for 11 years so they definitely understand what these young men require away from the rink. The Express looks for homes where the player feels safe and can decompress, talk about their day, and discuss any challenges they are facing.
Mental health is such an important part of the game now.
“Their home away from home needs to be a place of comfort where they know they are cared about,” explains Battista. “Ultimately they need to be in an environment that is suitable for my own children, living with a family I would want my child to be with if they needed to live away from home to achieve their dreams.”
The unlucky house
Darlene and Dave McCann were original Express season ticket holders and die-hard fans. Darlene later became an Express volunteer. The McCanns helped out the team, acting as temporary billets for players until a more permanent living solution was found within the community.
The McCanns wondered if they could handle the responsibility of billeting granted that they weren’t even parents themselves. “Our first billet was a young 16-year-old from BC who ended up staying with us for three weeks,” said Darlene.
That player was Tyler Wagman, who ended up leaving the game of hockey a few months later. Ironically enough, Wagman’s parents called the McCanns a year later, asking them if they would be interested in having their son live with them while attending culinary school.
“We immediately said yes! (To this day, 17 years later) we are in constant contact with this wonderful young man, his partner, and two beautiful children,” she explains.
The McCann’s ended up being billet parents to three more players. Unfortunately, they appeared to be the “jinx” house as the players didn’t stay long because they were either traded or quit hockey.
Despite those players moving on so soon, the McCanns don’t regret jumping into billeting with both feet. “We are still in contact with all but one of them, and being a billet parent was one of the best decisions we ever made.”.
Living with a star
Stephen Cunningham joined the Express in the 2005-06 season and was a key cog in their RBC Cup run. Cunningham also had the luck of the draw ending up as a billet son with Bruce and Vicky Turris, and a billet brother to their son Kyle, who as of this writing has played more than 750 NHL games.
Cunningham notes that Turris’ success comes as no surprise. “Kyle was extremely routine-oriented. He would eat and do the same things nightly and weekly.”
The Boulder, CO native explains that along with Bruce, he and Kyle would watch the Canucks on TV and analyze the game. “I honestly learned more at dinner than anywhere else. I was amazed at how Kyle would know each player’s name and number, who was at fault for a goal against, who was caught behind the play et cetera. He was completely dialed in.”
A learning experience
At the time Turris was scoring four goals a night for the Express, his teammates took notice. “Everybody started doing what he did,” jokes Cunningham, who’s now the owner of Husky Hockey School. He noted that Turris brought a bag of dried oatmeal, dried fruit, and brown sugar and didn’t eat food provided for team breakfasts.
Cunningham explains that he soon became more routine-oriented like his roomie and did similar things. “I think living with a billet like Kyle Turris completely reshaped me and showed me what to do to prepare. Coming from Colorado, the level of hockey is not quite the same as it is in Vancouver.”
Former Express boss Rick Lanz was the first coach he had that played in the NHL and he learned a lot from the former Canucks rearguard. “That’s why I started Husky Hockey School out here, so I can share my experiences with kids around Colorado,” beams Cunningham.
Cunningham believes it is beyond special that he had the opportunity to live with Turris and his family, adding they were great buddies from the first time they met.
He jokes that Kyle has one of the best senses of humor of anyone he played with and Bruce is about as smart as they come. Subjects like hockey, religion, movies, and science were commonplace at the Turris dinner table.
“(Kyle’s mom) Vicky always kept the fridge stocked and kept our egos in check with a list of chores,” adds Cunningham. He shares these stories with his hockey school students to this very day and believes in paying his billet experience forward.
Players become teachers and family
As noted, Battista and her family have billeted for 11 seasons. “My children, Noah and Isabella, grew up with a lot of big brothers and fabulous role models”, she explains. “They were taught the meaning of hard work, dedication, teamwork, the need to laugh, and most importantly, being true to yourself.”
Battista recalls that not a single day goes by in which one of their names does not come up. “You just have to walk down my stairwell to see them all pictured, just as a family should be.” The Battista family still maintains regular contact with their boys and stay in touch with them as much as possible.
Social media is such a powerful tool and Battista looks forward to the Happy Mother’s Day or Merry Christmas texts and messages. “Isabella and Noah have big brothers all over North America and the door is always open from us,” Battista reflects. “It is so fun to watch the many things they achieve over the years, both in college hockey and the pros.”
Sometimes local players are billeted
Colton Kerfoot was born and raised in West Vancouver, BC. Despite Coquitlam being within reasonable driving distance, the younger Kerfoot followed in the footsteps of older brother Alex and billeted during his BCHL days with the Express.
“I couldn’t have had a better experience. Teresa, Phil, and the whole (Battista) family opened up their home to us and gave both Jackson (Cressey) and me anything we could have asked for,” explains the Harvard graduate.
“It was both of our first times living away from home, so it was a nice transition from living away from our own families and joining theirs. I think that’s a big part of billeting in general, living away from home but still having that family environment,” Kerfoot explains from Boston, MA, where he currently lives with his girlfriend.
“Teresa and Phil are some of the best out there, treating us and all their other billets like family. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Whether players move past junior hockey onto college or the pros, it is safe to say that the billet experience they receive in junior hockey is instrumental to their success.
Think your family could billet a player? Reach out to your nearest BCHL team to be an important part of a young man’s life.