The Niagara Predators are hoping to line up a couple of new billet families before the team returns to action on the scheduled date of January 26.
For Patti Aulsebrook of Beamsville, billeting out-of-town hockey players in the Greater Metro Hockey League has been a fulfilling experience, even though she began her role as a self-professed ‘den mother’ somewhat reluctantly at the urging of her husband, Robin Bird.
“I was volun-told by my husband that I needed another hobby,” she laughs. “He referees hockey, and over Christmas one year he brought home two Russian players who were here for a tournament. That was only a week, but it’s grown over the years.”
With their own kids having grown up and flown the coop, she jokes that it has been a way for her to fill the empty nest.
Since that first week-long hosting experience a few years ago, their doors have been open to players from Spain, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, the US, and even a former female Olympic hockey player from Helsinki, Finland who came over to play in a Burlington tournament.
Many of the 14 players they have hosted during that time have left an impression, and long after they moved on she and Robin continue to follow their careers. But one former billet sticks out in Patti’s mind, for obvious reasons.
“My daughter Taylor married one of our billets last year,” Patti says. “Alex Whitehair from Rochester was billeting with us when he was 18. She was at college and living in an apartment, but he was staying at our house. But that’s how they met.”
Whitehair’s team, the Lincoln Mavericks, folded that year, and he moved to Almaguin of the league’s Northern Division mid-season. The Spartans won the GMHL championship that year. Following his GMHL career, Whitehair played two seasons in Sweden and Taylor travelled with him there. They have been together for five years.
Asked how challenging it is to feed young hockey players, Aulsebrook says it’s never been a problem until her current group.
“This generation, they don’t like anything,” she marvels. “They are simple eaters, so I make simple stuff. I always make sure on game days that they have pasta. I was buying a jug of Gatorade but they were drinking it like tap water, so I had to put restrictions on that. And I had to hide the protein bars and hand them out just before game day.”
One of the responsibilities of the billet family is to provide up to three meals a day for the players. They are also expected to provide living space, including a bed and dresser, for each player, and be willing to provide a space for them to park their own vehicle if they have one. And high-speed wi-fi is a must.
Patti’s billets sleep on the second floor of the family’s Beamsville home, and they have their own washroom that they share, separate from the ensuite used by Aulsebrook and Bird. Though their bedtimes might be a bit different than that of their hosts, it’s nothing that any parent would find unusual from having raised their own 17- to 21-year-old. She and Bird say there is literally no interruption to their lives.
The billeted players are expected to help out with family duties, including dishes, garbage and laundry, and Patti says sometimes she has to remind them to clean up after themselves.
“They’re teenage boys,” she says. “Every once in a while I go in there and say ‘okay guys, it’s time to clean up. We’re going to wash the sheets today because you guys smell too much’. When the ‘boy smell’ finds its way downstairs, it’s time to do some housework.”
It’s been an unusual year in their household, a revolving door of sorts as players have come and gone this season.
Earlier in the year Swedes Alex Insulander and Jesper Eriksson were staying with them before they moved to an apartment. Henry-Pierre Jayet from Switzerland won’t return after his recent trade to the Mackenzie Mountaineers in BC. Prospective Predator Jacob Saunders, a goaltender from Spring Hill, Florida, recently arrived and is planning to move into that apartment with Insulander and Eriksson once the duo returns from Sweden.
Their current permanent billets are Gino Carter Squire (Alberta), Georgy Kholmovsky (Russia) and Iain Riordan (Colorado).
“I’ve never had a problem with them,” Aulsebrook says of all of her billets. “It’s a rewarding experience giving a young person a home to live in while they have the opportunity to play the sport they love. You give them independence but at the same time learn about their country and their traditions. We have lots of cool memories.”
Owner, GM and head coach Robert Turnbull says billet families are the backbone of any Junior hockey program.
“They don’t just take care of the players,” he says. “A lot of them attend the games and we love to have them around. You can’t run a program with imports without billet families. We update them with the players’ needs and requirements, and they understand going into the arrangement that players can be moved or decide not to continue. To have a billet family like Patti and Robin who keep a spot available when a player moves allows us to have player movement..”
There is some compensation for billet families, and free tickets are provided for them to come out and watch the team’s home games in the Meridian Credit Union Arena. For information, please contact assistant general managers Connor Shipton (905-869-5379) or Samantha Marson (519-239-0751).