July 22, 2014

Classic Post: Tomahawks Unsung Heroes, The Billets

*This article was first written on July 1st 2013. Since we gain new readers every month, and have new players (and their families) joining the team every year, we figured we should post this article once again. Enjoy! *


At any level of hockey the team is built from the ownership down. If the ownership is rock solid you're setting yourself up to have a solid team.  The head coach leads the way, helping the players develop into the players they can be. Then of course your have the players themselves - the ones that hit, shoot, fight, make saves, and stop pucks. The players are the ones that put up the points, and when they win they make the coach, management team, and ownership look great. The opposite happens when the team doesn't put up the points, and can't get the wins.

No matter if the team wins or loses, there is a big part of the team, at least in junior hockey, that never gets credit. Their names are never listed in the game day program. They're never named as the "Three Stars of the Game". You'll never see somebody in the stands with their name on a back of a jersey but they are some of the most important people involved with the team. So who are these people?

The Billet Family.

The Billet Family plays a huge role in the junior hockey game, but it's something most people don't even think about or fully understand. These Billet Families aren't just "babysitters" to the players, but they in fact become that player's second family.

"We are not just using their house for a place to sleep," says Trevor Heuser, Johnstown Tomahawks' recently acquired defenseman. "We take place in family events. We interact with them constantly, eating meals as a family, helping around the house with things that need to be done, and we spend time with the kids in the family (if the family has any)," Heuser adds.

It's up to that strong ownership and the staff they put in place to find the best billet families possible. You don't want a family that allows the player to do anything they wish, while at the same time, you don't want a family that rules with an iron fist. The billet parents become authority figures, role models, and extended family to their assigned player(s). 

"We've seen players show dramatic changes in their confidence levels, grade point averages, social graces, behavior, work ethic, relationships with others, and so much more," says Rick Boyd, Tomahawks' General Manager, in a press release looking for billet families for the 2013-2014 season.

What kind of person decides to open up their home to complete strangers for eight months out of the year?  And why do they decide to do so? Each family's reason might be different but their experience is almost always the same.

One of those families, is the Knopsnyders, Tami and Eric. "We decided just a few days before (main camp) that we were going to put our house up for sale because it's too big for just the two of us," Tami said. Her husband works at The Tribune Democrat and saw that the Tomahawks were looking for families to host players for the inaugural season. The question popped into Eric's head, why don't they host a player, since their house was big enough.

"After talking it over we decided that we should go all out and fill our house. They (players) needed places to stay and we had rooms for three (players)." At first the team tried to talk the Knopsnyders out of hosting three players, as hosting three would be a lot of work. By the end of the season Tami and Eric had opened their house to a total of eight players that at least played a few games with the team, and ten more that were trying out for next year's team. Of course, it wasn't all at the same time. Trades, injuries, tryouts, and releases kept players arriving and leaving, some staying only a night, others longer.

"I think our expectations were, we could provide a stable environment for some players to live in while in Johnstown and maybe we'd go to a couple of hockey games during the season," Tami said. They did provide that stable environment but they also turned into true hockey fans. Before they had decided to become a billet family, the Knopsnyders never were true fans of hockey. Once they got to know the players and their love for the game, they fell in love with it too.

Another group that opened their home to players of the Johnstown Tomahawks was Ginger Pollock and her family. "We are a hundred percent hockey crazy family. My husband, myself, and our two boys are all fans," said Ginger. "Our two boys both play travel hockey and they both play hockey for school," Ginger added. Having kids of her own made it an easy choice to open up her home to players that are chasing their hockey dreams. The good karma doesn't hurt either.

"Both of my boys want to play pro hockey. If either of them were ever in a situation to move away from home to play, I'd be a nervous wreck. I want to be able to put some other mother's mind at ease knowing her son is being cared for and supported while away from home," Ginger said.

The Pollocks did just that, opening their door to three players during the season. Two of those spent three months in Johnstown, while the other was only in town a little less than two weeks. Unlike in the Knopsnyder home, the Pollock household already had two kids in the house. Families that have their own children have different experiences than ones that don't. These players become big brothers to the younger children of the household.

Some times players are placed into a house where the family only has one child, which can give that child an experience he or she has never had before. This is just one of the examples on how these players really do become part of the family and change the dynamic. "We tried to prepare our boys that although they would, no doubt, bond with the player(s), they also had to allow him time to himself to unwind, sleep, have private phone conversations, etc," Ginger said. 

When Ginger first opened up her home to players, her husband and she tried to see this opportunity as "just business" because of the possibility of trades and such things. That mindset though, didn't last long at all. In the NAHL, teams play most of their games on the weekends, which means that during the week, when not at practice, there's a lot of downtime and time for player-family interaction. "Two of our players really interacted with us. They ate regular meals with us and went to our boys' hockey games and practices. We also went to movies together, watched TV together and grocery shopped together," Ginger said.

Over at the Knopsnyders, the interaction was also there. "We tried to eat dinner together when we could," Tami said. She added "(A player) and I carved jack-o-lanterns together while Eric often played video games with the guys."

"We found that there is an immediate bond in most cases, as these young men are away from home - in some cases a continent removed from their family - and putting their trust in you to help them. In turn, you're welcoming them into your home and trusting that they will respect it and your family," Tami said.

Not all players are outgoing and want to hangout with the billet family 24/7. This is to be expected. The Johnstown Tomahawks try to match the personalities between the player and possible billet family. Some families, like Tami's, host several players at a time, while others take in just one. "I prefer to have another player living with me because I enjoy the company and it helps keep us both motivated," said Tomahawks' defenseman Cody Bentzel. "I was fortunate enough to have a teammate that lived with me but there were plenty of guys on the team that lived alone with just the billet family," Bentzel added.

Heuser is a player that would prefer to not have a teammate live with him. "We are around the team every day most of the time and around each other 24/7 when on a road trip. I like to have a little 'alone time' or 'down time' by myself when times of the season are very physically and mentally demanding, also I like some time to keep up with my school work and studies," Heuser explains.

With the players living with the billet family eight months out of the year, strong bonds and memories are made. Bodhi Engum, one of the Tomahawks goaltenders, stayed with the Pollocks while playing for Johnstown. "One of my enduring memories is of Bodhi playing Jailbreak outside with our boys. He was fearless and inventive with his hiding places and really gave the boys a good time," said Ginger. Engum also liked to play pranks. "He also climbed up into the rafters of our carport and waited for me to come home one night. As I got out of my car, he whispered my name and when I looked up, he was hanging over my head and scared the crap out of me," Ginger said.

It's these memories that make the business side of junior hockey hard for the billet families. On January 15, 2013, the Johnstown Tomahawks decided to release Engum from the team. "When the time came to take Bodhi to the airport, it was torture. I was sick to my stomach the whole way there.  Leaving him in that empty terminal at 2 a.m. really devastated us," said Ginger.

That's something that the average fan doesn't ever think about. When we see or hear of a trade, or a player is moved, we don't always think about the emotions, off the ice with the people involved. Just because a player changes cities and is welcomed into a new home doesn't mean they don't keep up with their former billet family.
"After being traded to Johnstown my billets were very upset to see me leave their family and the last good-bye was not easy," Heuser said about being traded from Corpus Christi. "I stay in touch with them to this day and definitely plan to keep in touch with them for awhile. I cannot thank them enough for all they have done for me. It was a great experience and pleasure to be apart of their family," Heuser added.

Matt Williams, a player that stayed with the Knopsnyders, hopes to maintain contact with Tami and Eric now that his junior hockey career is over. "I would like to stay in touch with them," Williams said, adding "It was great, I felt very much welcomed and at home in a short time".

Of course it's not always a heart warming story about a player and the billet family getting along. When this happens the team steps in to find new housing for a player. The reasons this might happen, could be because of different ways of life, work schedule, personalities, among many other factors. Sometimes the billet family situation with a player can point to other factors that may have the team trading that player.
For the Knopsnyders and the Pollock's, the experience was such a wonderful experience that they hope to be billet families again for the 2013-2014 season. "Obviously, we'd rather not have seven players leave us during the season. Other than that, we had a fabulous experience as a billet family and are already changing some things about our house to better accommodate next season's group," Tami said.

"We are absolutely billeting again," Ginger said. What's Ginger's advice for making the player-family relationship work? "The main rule, in my opinion is that you can't expect to force a relationship, it has to develop from the player outward."

A strong ownership, coaching staff, players, and billet families in Johnstown, has the fan's thinking it's only a matter of time till the Robertson Cup comes to the city of Johnstown.

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