Mike Chiasson felt completely at home with the Clint and Janet Shafer family even before he had a chance to check out his bedroom or — more importantly — the refrigerator.
For nine months, as he pursues his dream of an NCAA scholarship, Chiasson will lean on the Shafers for so much more than a roof over his head and a warm meal. The captain of the Omaha Lancers can count on his billet family for the same kind of emotional support he receives back home in Henderson, Nev.
“There really wasn’t that one moment where someone had to break the ice,” said Chiasson, the son of late NHL defenseman Steve Chiasson. “I felt comfortable with the Shafers the first day I got here. They’re such passionate people who truly care about you — and that shows in the number of old Lancers who still call the house years after they’ve gone.”
Having the support of a billet family is about more than providing a player with a place to hang his hat at the end of the day. It’s about providing stability during a tumultuous time in a young player’s life. The move to Junior hockey from high school or Midgets is such a big step for players that having a firm foundation away from the rink is a vital part of dealing with the stress of the season and making the transition much easier.
“Even something as small as helping you find the right place to get your oil changed can make a huge difference,” Chiasson said.
The Lancers have developed into a perennial United States Hockey League power in part because their housing families provide such a strong backbone to the organization. Their billet program could be used as a blueprint for families looking to make Junior hockey players feel at ease during a pivotal period in their careers.
Terri Phillips, the team’s director of player personnel, has overseen the billet program for 15 seasons. She says the key to a happy billet home actually begins during the summer tryout camp, when many housing families volunteer with everything from meals to answering questions about the community.
The Lancers ask prospective players to fill out a three-page compatibility survey covering everything from likes and dislikes to preferences for pets, kids and food, including brand names.
“Even though the camp is only four days, you can get a pretty good feel for their personalities,” Phillips said. “Which players are outgoing? Which ones are quiet? Who likes to be the center of attention? You make a lot of mental notes. Then, knowing the families’ personalities, you get a feel for which ones will be the right fits.
“If the players take advantage of [the questionnaire], you almost never have a bad fit. To be honest, I’ve never had to move a player because we had a bad fit.”
Phillips develops a preliminary housing list as early as late July, and then provides contact information for the billet family and the players’ families.
“We’ll talk on the phone on a regular basis for the two or three weeks before they report to camp, just to kind of get a feel for the player’s likes and dislikes,” Clint Shafer said. “You can really start to build a relationship by talking on the phone. That’s important, because it takes away some of the anxiety, especially for a lot of players who are moving away from home for the first time.
“My wife, Janet, is unbelievable with the moms. I think it’s harder on the moms than anybody, and she has a knack for making them feel comfortable their son is going to a safe home.”
Those first few weeks after the team reports can be hectic. Players have to get to know their teammates and coaches, figure out how to get from Point A to Point B in the community and settle into a school or work routine around practice sessions.
Phillips encourages housing families to slow everything down, at least for a few hours in the evening.
“I absolutely stress sitting down to dinners together, especially in the beginning of the year,” Phillips said. “I know how busy my own family is and how tough that can be, so you can’t expect it every night. But, sitting down to dinner in the evening really opens the door to communication. The kids really open up and the transition is so much smoother. If there is a little problem, you can head it off before it becomes a big problem.”
Andi and Mike Johnson have been housing Lancers for several years, and they notice a significant difference between being a parent and being a housing parent. Players must follow detailed team rules, first and foremost, and the family can fill in the blanks with its own house rules.
“Like every teenager, independence is very important to them,” Andi Johnson said. “That’s why our player’s room is in a totally different part of the house. You want to feel like you’re a part of their lives, but at the same time you want to make sure they have a certain amount of freedom.
“We do try to have a sit-down meal for supper every night. It’s a great opportunity to get them involved in the family, and it’s a great way to talk about how everybody’s day went. And we do try to do things together — sometimes it might be a night of card games, and sometimes it might be as simple as sitting down to watch a TV show like ‘Castle’ or ‘Modern Family’ together.”
The 19-year-old Chiasson, in his third season with the Lancers, hopes to make a college decision soon. It can be a long, frustrating process, so having the right support system at home makes a huge difference.
“They’ll ask me general questions about how it’s going, which is nice, because I can tell they care about me and they want me to make the right decision,” he said.
“But, at the same time, they kind of leave me on my own, and they’re not too nosy about it. They don’t get [overly] involved or try to offer me too much advice.”
Home Sweet Home
Do’s And Don’ts When It Comes To Housing A Junior Hockey Player
WHAT A BILLET FAMILY SHOULD DO
Establish a set of guidelines early on so the player knows what is expected of them.
Find out what types of foods the player likes to eat and understand the nutritional requirements of an elite athlete.
Understand a player’s practice and game schedule to plan mealtime.
Respect a player’s privacy and need for independence.
Create an open line of communication with the player’s parents.
Provide a safe place to air and dry a player’s equipment.
Make the player feel comfortable, not only in your home but in your community.
Be a good listener if a player is stressed about playing time, team issues, homesickness, etc.
Take an interest in player’s season and go to games whenever possible.
WHAT A PLAYER SHOULD DO
Know what is expected and acceptable in billet family’s house.
Be respectful of your new surroundings. After all, you are a guest in someone else’s house.
Don’t take things for granted. Just because something may be acceptable in your own house doesn’t mean it is acceptable with your billet family.
Be willing to participate in family activities where appropriate.
Serve as a positive role model for younger children in billet family.
Be willing to communicate with billet family.
Don’t take out your problems on the billet family.