Breaking down the billets
April 2, 2012
What goes into being a host family, or "billet," for a junior hockey player? Ron Rop explores how housing a Lumberjack can enrich the lives of all involved
by Ron Rop
Last August, it didn’t take much convincing for Heather Sturr to open her home to a Muskegon Lumberjacks’ player.
There was a phone call from team president Tim Taylor asking if the Sturr family would be willing to become billets. Then 16-year-old Alec Sturr did his share of prodding of his mother.
“Alec asked me last year (2010-11) and we said ‘no’ in the beginning of the season,” Heather said. “Then they got some players in part way through the season and we still said ‘no.’ I have been lifelong friends with Tim Taylor’s family and he called me in early August and said he really needed us to take one of their players.
“I had a hard time saying no to Timmy and the kids were saying, ‘Take one, take one, take one.’”
So Heather agreed and Lumberjacks defenseman Ryan Bullock moved in with Eric, Heather, Brendan, 21, Alec and Connor, 13.
“I sort of committed without clearing with Eric (her husband),” Heather said. “He had to warm up to the idea, but he’s fine with it now.”
Bullock has been a welcomed addition to the Sturr family since arriving from Eden Prairie, Minn., in late August.
The Sturrs have noticed one thing in particular with Bullock: he loves his long hair.
“He comes up the stairs and there is a mirror at the head of the stairs.” Heather said. “He cannot go past that mirror without stopping. And he runs his hands through his hair all the time.
“He has not had a haircut since he moved here in August. It’s hanging out pretty far from his helmet now. He just loves that hair.”
And the second-year USHL franchise is loving the response they’ve gotten from area families.
“It has been favorable since Day 1,” he said. “We are fortunate to have a community willing to open their hearts and homes to help these young men prosper.”
“Billets are the life blood of the organization,” Lumberjacks’ owner Josh Mervis said. “These billets are stepping in to be surrogate parents. And in my 17 years of junior hockey, these are the best billets I have ever seen.”
Currently, the Jacks have 25 families on their billet list, of which 22 are currently active.
The high-school aged players go to Mona Shores while those who have graduated can live anywhere in the community.
“We purposely put them all in one school,” Taylor said. “If they have to get out of class early, having them in one district helps the process along and the school has been unbelievable.”
In most cases, the Lumberjacks attempt to put just one player in each home, which helps alleviate the possibility of having two players hanging out all the time and alienating the family.
Recently, the Lumberjacks announced they’ve hired Joe Abdelkader, the father of Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, to be the team’s housing coordinator and also deal with educational issues. Joe is a veteran local educator and a strong supporter of the Jacks.
“With Justin’s experience in the USHL, [Joe] has unbelievable ideas,” Taylor said. “He’s a hockey parent as well as having his experience in the education system.”
Billet families do receive season tickets for their family and a monthly monetary stipend.
“They do see a monetary stipend, but that frankly doesn’t cover their cost,” said Taylor, referring to the amount of food a young hockey player, or any teenager for that matter, can consume.
“I think the most important thing is you get to grow lifelong relationships,” Taylor said. “They build relationships and stay in touch with them for years to come. We have billets who still talk to their players from last year.”
So, will the Sturrs take in another Lumberjacks player after Bullock eventually moves on to the next level?
“Hopefully, but we need someone as nice as Ryan,” Heather said.
Ron Rop is a freelance writer who covered Muskegon hockey for more than 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.