by Ryan Schwepfinger, Youngstown Phantoms
An element of the junior hockey life in the USHL that is often overlooked is the billet family experience. These wonderful families provide housing, care, and overall support for Phantoms players every season, helping with the difficult situation of living away from home to play hockey for nine months out of the year. At first thought, it might seem like an enormous commitment that involves a lot of sacrifices. However, this process can be extremely rewarding, and nearly all families who open their homes to junior hockey players report nothing but positive experiences.
“When we found out why the boys play for the USHL and the sacrifice that they and their families make, we wanted to help,” said Michelle Stillings, billet parent of Zach Evancho and Colin DeAugustine.
“Who knows, maybe in the next 5 to 7 years, one of our children will be in this position of being a billet hockey player. We look forward to knowing that another loving family will be willing to open their doors for our own children.”
Stillings and her husband, Brian, are in their second year as billet parents. In addition to having two of their own children, they enjoy the presence of Evancho and DeAugustine and consider them as official members of the family.
“We worry about them as we would our own,” Stillings said. “We get excited with them when there is good news, and we feel their pain when something goes wrong.”
Hollie Zinkham, billet parent of Conor Lemirande and Luke Stork, says that the boys are included in her family’s traditions, and in some cases, will go the extra mile to help out with whatever they need.
“We are a young family and are beginning to build traditions with our toddler, so the boys have always been a part,” Zinkham said. “They have also always been involved in our holiday celebrations, nightly family dinners, Sunday dinners, etc.”
Zinkham and her husband are in their third year as billet parents, and she can recall a situation where her former billet son, Todd Koritzinsky, went out of his way to make her life easier.
“Todd was here the day that [my son] Talon was delivered emergency C-section at 29.5 weeks, [measuring] only two pounds, 12 ounces, and 16 inches,” said Zinkham. “Todd was such a big help with the house, our dog, and he even had to drive me to the hospital a few times to be with Talon once I was discharged, since Talon was in the NICU for 50 days. As a result of this, Todd and Talon will always have a bond.”
For Stillings, and her children who are a little bit older, Evancho and DeAugustine have become additional siblings. They interact, play games, and share special memories like normal brothers and sisters would.
“The boys have become big brothers to our own two children,” said Stillings. “The boys get on my kids’ case when they aren’t doing well in school, and gently remind my kids when they aren’t being quite so nice with us. They wrestle with my kids, have Nerf gun battles throughout the house, and with the cold weather this year, came outside on our outdoor skating rink and skated endless hours in the backyard with us, just playing pond hockey.”
As young men who understand what these billet families are doing for them, it does not come as a surprise that they respect everyone involved and are well behaved.
“They are respectful of us and our work schedules, as well as Talon’s sleep schedule,” said Zinkham. “They are pretty good at letting us know about team dinners, outings, when they are leaving for road trips (if the schedule changes), etc.”
“The boys are very well behaved and respect us and our home,” continued Stillings. “Even the affiliates that have floated in and out of our home for a night or two have been very respectful and grateful. I can’t say enough about the boys and their behavior. It helps that we also have been able to build a wonderful relationship/friendship with the boys’ parents.”
In the midst of all of this, it should not go unnoticed that the players’ actual parents are sending them off to live with families that they do not know themselves. However, the reactions from the actual parents have been nothing but positive.
“Kyle has had a wonderful billet family experience this year at the Hunt’s,” said Joe Connor, father of forward Kyle Connor. “Tony and Deb treat Kyle like their own son, encouraging him to take part in various family activities. She makes him great meals, he makes him laugh, and the girls treat him like a brother. They all support and cheer proudly for him at games, all of which has added to making him feel even more comfortable as part of their extended family.
“Their gracious support enables Kyle to excel at pursuing his passion for playing hockey at his best. We are very grateful Kyle has had such a supportive billet family, allowing us to have more comfort knowing he is being taken care of so far away from home.”
As a bonus, billet families are given season tickets so that they can attend every game at their discretion.
“We attend every home game,” said Zinkham. “In three years, I have only missed one school day game due to work, and Brian hasn’t missed any games. Talon loves the games, too, and is pretty well known around the Covelli Centre.”
What may seem like a difficult commitment can actually be a beneficial experience that helps both sides of the situation. The players receive the support they need while moving away from home to pursue their hockey dreams, and the billet families get to enjoy the pleasure of watching these players grow and develop as a result of their generosity.
“The positives outweigh the negatives; it will change your life for the better,” said Zinkham, when asked to provide advice for those thinking about becoming billet parents. “You will love it, and the boys!”
“We can honestly say it has been an enriching experience for all of us that is beyond words,” added Stillings.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 12th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2013-14. A record 32 players were chosen in the 2013 NHL Draft and more than 300 players on team rosters last season have committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com or visit the League’s social media platforms, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/ushlhockey), twitter (www.twitter.com/ushl), and YouTube (www.youtube.com/ushlinteractive). Fans can also watch USHL action all season long, live or on-demand via FASTHockey (ushl.fasthockey.com).
It’s not just hockey. It’s the USHL.
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