Family matters for MSU hockey players, host families
For a 16-year-old junior hockey player armed with dreams of collegiate and professional hockey, packing up their bags and moving across the country — or to Canada — is nothing out of the ordinary.
A junior hockey player could travel to different cities to play, but as a minor they will have to move in with a billet family — a host family to provide a home and support during school and the hockey season.
Junior forward Cody Milan and some of his teammates on the MSU hockey team started their journeys moving to cities such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Bloomington.
“At first, it can be kind of nerve-wrecking,” Milan said. “Especially when I was 16, I had never lived with another family before and I was so used to living with my family at home back in Michigan, so I was kind of scared at first. After the first couple of days or first week, you really see how nice some of these people are and they really make you feel at home.”
At the USA National Team Development Program, or USANTDP, located in Plymouth, Michigan, 38 out of the current 45 players are living with billet families from the time school starts to the end of the school year.
Director of Student-Athlete Services at the USANTDP Lisa Vollmers said she is in the process of getting applications and interviews set up for families interested in being a host family next season.
All the families range from parents with multiple children to families who have never had children and are willing to open up their home.
“It really is all sorts of people and all sorts of situations,” Vollmers said. “The common goal is just providing that loving, supporting environment for these teenage boys because they really come when they are 15, 16 years old.”
Making a new family
Most of the time, players will have up to two or three billet families before playing at the collegiate or professional level. Sophomore defenseman Butrus Ghafari lived with two families, one in North Dakota and one in Illinois, during his junior career.
Neither of his experiences with his two families were the same.
For instance, one family had children and the second family did not have any.
“It was different in both places,” Ghafari said. “In North Dakota I was in high school, so I would wake up and have breakfast with them, go to school, come home, study and then they would have to go somewhere with their kids because they had games and stuff, so I would usually eat alone except for on weekends.”
It’s not always smooth sailings, though.
Sophomore forward Logan Lambdin first started out in Port Huron, Michigan, with his billet family at 18 years old before moving on to his second family in Bloomington, Michigan, where there were some differences.
Lambdin said one family did not understand him well, from personal space to his athletic diet.
“My first year in Bloomington, it was kind of a rough transition into a billet family that I just really didn’t mesh with,” Lambdin said. “It really wasn’t like my family at home, and they just didn’t understand my lifestyle.”
To become a host family, there is an application families must fill out, including details about their daily routines and diet.
After the application, they must have a house visit from one of the coaches and Vollmers to get to know them on a personal level.
After the families are selected for the season, players and their parents must both fill out an application describing their lifestyle and their food choices.
From there, Vollmers and others begin to match families to players, where some players might get put with the same family.
“After tryout camp, when we know who made the team, we have the players fill out a profile where they get to write out lots and lots about themselves, and we have their parents do the same thing,” Vollmers said. “That’s one piece of information, the paper piece, and between the housing committee and the coaches and the player personnel group, then we are trying our best to get to know the families.”
In freshman forward Jake Smith’s situation, this was not his first move out of the house at 18 years old. Getting used to house rules was more difficult for him.
Smith, from Buffalo, moved all the way to Chilliwack, British Columbia, to play in the British Columbia Hockey League. For him, another challenge was getting used to the long distance from his family.
“It was really tough because I obviously went across the country from the east coast to living on the west coast,” Smith said. “I had a really good situation where they welcomed me like a second family and really made the transition being so far away from my real family a lot easier.”
Having a loving family connection can help a teenage player, especially when they are miles away from home.
“That’s really a part of the goal for these housing families, that they’re opening up their home and they want another family member,” Vollmers said. “They don’t just want some kid who is going to spend the night there. They want to build a family dynamic and have that life long relationship.”
The daily grind
While the billet families provide housing for the players, they also get covered for other things as well since the players do not get paid. Oftentimes, the programs will provide a certain amount of money per month for the families to help cover groceries and other items to provide for the player.
Parents will also chip in, whether it be in gift cards, gas money or providing small snacks their children like.
The billet families are also provided with a daily plan for their player as well. The plans can lay out what goes on throughout their day after they get out of school.
“Every day is clearly laid out so that the host family knows exactly where their player is, what he is doing, what time curfew is ... if they have a day off,” Vollmers said. “There is no gray area.”
Many of the players discuss the difficulty of getting used to different house rules and their billet families’ daily plans, but other things often hit close to home for them.
During the season, players rarely go back home to visit their friends and families.
“Any holiday was the worst for me when I was 16 because your family is getting together and you’re not there,” Ghafari said. “The big ones like Easter and stuff for my family I wasn’t able to go to, and it kind of hit home because I missed seeing family and stuff.”
Besides going home for Christmas and summer vacations, most players spend major holidays with their host families.
While Smith lived in Canada during his junior hockey years, he did not go home for American Thanksgiving.
His billet family put on an American-style Thanksgiving dinner for him and his American teammates to make them feel at home.
“It was actually cool being an American and playing in a Canadian league,” Smith said. “They would always make me an American Thanksgiving and they would have all the American players over to celebrate our Thanksgiving because in Canada they have a different time.”
Keeping the connection
For many of the players, living with host families gave them a special bond.
“In my last year in Bloomington, which was two years ago, I had a really good connection with the lady I was living with and we still talk basically every week to every two weeks,” Lambdin said. “It’s just a really good family connection.”
Some athletes and players continue to keep in contact with their families.
They also occasionally take time to see each other, whether the host families take small vacations to visit their favorite hockey players or come to MSU.
Along with the connections built through the process, Ghafari said having hosts was part of being in a junior league. He said his biggest reward from a billet family involves MSU.
“I’m at Michigan State now,” Ghafari said. “My dream school, so I guess the biggest reward is I’m playing here.”