(Photo courtesy Jessi Pierce/USAHockey.com)
In the world of hockey, the spotlight often shines brightest on the players, coaches, and management. But behind the scenes, there is a crucial and often overlooked group of individuals who play an indispensable role in the development of young athletes - billet families. These unsung heroes open their homes and hearts to aspiring hockey players, creating a nurturing environment where talent can flourish, and lifelong bonds are formed.
A billet family is a host family that welcomes junior hockey players into their home for the duration of the season. These families provide room and board to players, often teenagers, who have left their hometowns to pursue their dreams of making it to the professional level.
Having a billet family allows players to focus on their training and games without the worries of day-to-day living arrangements. These families also provide support off the ice and act as a second family for many players who are living away from home for the first time.
Billet families come from all walks of life and are found in every corner of the hockey world. They can be families with a deep passion for the game, empty nesters looking for a new purpose, or individuals who simply want to give back to their community. What they all share is a genuine love for the sport and a willingness to provide a stable and supportive environment for young players.
In an article published by USA Hockey, long-time billet parents Brian and Heather Raynsford, discussed their experiences as a billet family. They have hosted junior hockey players from the NAHL's Lone Star Brahmas for nearly a decade, going to great lengths to ensure their guests feel at home.
“I usually ask mom what comforts him if he has a bad day or when a game doesn’t go right. When they’re moving in, we make sure to give the families plenty of space to make the room their own and settle in and say goodbye,” said Heather Raynsford. “I’ve even asked what type of clothing detergent they like because sometimes it helps if your clothes smell like home.”
The bond between a billet family and a player goes far beyond the arrangement of room and board. Billet families become surrogate parents, mentors, and friends to the young players in their care. They provide a sense of belonging and stability in a world where players often face the challenges of adjusting to new cities, teams, and expectations.
The Raysnfords say that seeing players reach their full potential and helping them achieve their goals is the most rewarding part about being a billet parent.
“It’s such a joy for us to watch the kids have their dreams come true. Seeing them sign their NLIs or sitting at the dinner table and talking about who’s coming to scout them this weekend, who’s getting calls from different teams,” said Raynsford. “Just seeing the kids excel and make it, that’s what it’s all about.”
The impact of billet families on player development cannot be overstated. By removing the distractions and stresses associated with living on their own, players can focus more on their on-ice performance, skill development, and team camaraderie. This nurturing environment often leads to improved performance, helping players to reach their full potential.
NHL veteran Riley Nash, who played for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the BCHL from 2004 to 2007, is a prime example of how a supportive billet family can shape a player's junior league hockey experience.
(Photo courtesy Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)
Nash has publicly expressed gratitude for his billet family, Francis and Barb Hagel, who provided vital off-ice support while he lived with them.
“I had a great billet family, Francis and Barb Hagel, who really helped take great care of me. The year before I was there, my brother actually billeted with them. He moved on to Cornell [University] the next year and I moved on to Salmon Arm,” said Nash. “I guess they figured, ‘We had a good experience with the older brother, so maybe we’ll take the other one.’ I fit in quite seamlessly.”
The support Nash received off the ice while living with the Hagels could be seen by his impressive play on the ice. During his first full season with the Silverbacks, Nash scored 84 points in 55 regular season games. He finished the season as the team’s top scorer and was named Rookie of the Year and MVP.
Nash's story is a testament to the vital role billet families play in nurturing young talent, providing a sense of belonging, and fostering personal growth. Their support extends far beyond the rink, leaving an indelible mark on the lives and careers of aspiring athletes.