Opening Hearts & Homes

Host Families Play A Vital Role In The Success Of NTDP Players By Lisa Vollmers

This fall, junior hockey players from across the country will move away from family and friends and take up residence in close proximity to their team with a host family, that has opened their hearts and homes to support the endeavors of these aspiring young athletes.

Without question, these families play an important role in not only the success of the individual but the entire hockey program.

"Welcoming a young man into our home who wants to hone his hockey skills, better himself as a person and, most importantly, represent our country was an honor and privilege, and we are proud to say that we had a hand in this man's growth, both as a person and as an athlete," says Krista McKinley, who has hosted several talented young hockey players at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, including Spencer Knight and Jeremy Wilmer.

Host families come in all shapes and sizes. They range from retired, empty nesters to young families with toddlers and everything in between. One thing they all have in common is their selflessness. They do not do it for fame and fortune, they do so with the hope of growing their family to include a young player who aspires to become successful both on and off the ice.

Host families provide emotional support, meals and a safe haven for the player to return to at the end of a long day of school, training and practice. They act as sounding boards as hockey players learn to successfully make their way on a new team, with a new coach and in a new community. While they can never replace a player's parents and siblings, they are the next best thing.

"We became a host family as a way to pay it forward to the hockey community, which we've been a part of since our oldest son began playing eight years ago," says Karen Springer, who was a billet for Devin Kaplan. "We've met so many wonderful families and people through this community who've helped us along in all sorts of ways. It just felt natural to open up our lives and home to someone else along their hockey journey.

"It's an added bonus that our two sons have a well-adjusted, hard-working, responsible and dedicated 'big brother' to look up to who loves hockey as much as they do. It's a win-win." 

As players prepare to move in with a new family, they are often filled with angst and apprehension. They have questions like: Will they be nice? Will we get along? Will I like what they cook? What are the rules? Will I have to do chores? The answer to these questions is almost always YES.

"It's a little awkward for everyone when the kids first move takes a little time to figure each other out," says Ann Ryan, who opened her home to Ryan Siedem and Aidan Hreschuk. "The player isn't the only one adapting, we're adjusting how we function as a family to best support him. But we get there. And it's worth it."

In my experience of working with host families for 18 years, billet families open their homes because they care and want to support athletes that aspire to compete on a high level. They will do their best to welcome a player into their home, provide for their needs, support them while playing with their local team and help them grow into responsible young men.

Billet families have to jump through a number of hoops, including  completing a detailed application and interview process, a home visit, a background check and the completion of Safe Sport training before they can open their home to a player. 

"It's probably more challenging for the players than for us, between the demands of the program, school and being away from home," says Richard Werther, who billeted both John Beecher and Tyler Muszelik.

"Our challenge was to make them feel like this was their home and they weren't merely a guest here."

I continue to build relationships with seasoned host families and new groups that join the "housing team." Our ultimate goal is not only to support these student-athletes but to create life-long relationships with these players and their parents. 

A few years back, I had the honor of attending a wedding of a USHL/Div. I/pro hockey player. His brother was his best man and played in the program before moving on to play pro hockey. Between the two of them, three host families were in attendance. It was a beautiful extended family. We should all be so fortunate to have this ongoing support in our lives.

"Being a host family doesn't end when the player moves out after his two-year commitment to [the program]," McKinley says. "We have seen [Florida Panthers goaltender] Spencer [Knight] many times in the last couple of years, both on and off the ice, and he always makes a point to see us when he is in town. He still calls me his billet mom, which absolutely makes my heart soar. His mom and I continue to talk and have plans to watch him play NHL games next year. It is a relationship that has actually grown in the years since he's been gone."

Reflecting back on the experience both the players and their host families realize their time at the program is about much more than just hockey.

"Our hockey kids will always have a place in our family. I love hearing from them and knowing they're happy and having fun," Ryan says. "Hosting is a unique experience, in that you're really only together a short time. And when they move on, you don't stop cheering and wishing them every success." 



Lisa Vollmers is the director of student-athlete services for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.



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