For families and players in the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League, it’s a rite of passage to leave the comforts of home and go play for their respective junior hockey teams. That leave, however, requires something unique to hockey when compared to other sports byway of billet families.
Brian and Heather Raynsford have billeted for the past seven seasons, opening their Brahmaland, Texas home to players of the NAHL’s Lone Star Brahmas.
“We didn’t have kids and started hosting exchange students almost 10 years ago,” said Brian, who grew up in Idaho with limited exposure to hockey. “Heather actually brought up the idea of hockey boys. I jokingly asked her if she knew how big some of these guys were going to be.”
Heather saw a high school friend post on Facebook about the need for billet families in the area and with the previous experience of opening her home to other families, it seemed like a natural step.
But it turns out, hockey players bring their own special vibe to a home compared to an exchange student--namely in the size that Brian had mentioned.
“Our very first kid through the door was a goalie from Wisconsin,” recalled Heather with a smile. “I was talking to his mom, Karen, on their way down and said something about the bed he was going to have was a twin and she said that was fine. I asked her how big he was and her response: ‘6-5’. She said he sleeps sideways, it’ll be fine.
“So, I opened the door and there he is in the front, and he’s got this bouquet of flowers for me and his entire family: mom, dad, brother and sister, this is his first billet experience, he’s 18 and they all looked so hopeful and scared. Just amazing and adorable.”
Billeting, as the Raynsford’s can attest to, creates a unique bond with a player and a family. Billet homes are generally expected to provide three meals per day along with snacks (provided a stipend by the team to help deter costs).
And speaking of planning meals…
“Sometimes the boys would come home after I made this big grand meal and they would forget to tell me that they had tickets to the Dallas Stars game or something,” said Heather. “So, we had to talk schedules and figure that out.
“But if you’re not flexible, it’s a little bit harder.”
And of course, when it comes to meals, the Raynsford’s keep it as healthy as they can, and also chat with the players’ families to see if there are any favorite meals or comfort foods to help ease the transition.
Oh, and there is A LOT of food consumed, especially when housing more than one player at a time.
“Target has me on a first name basis. I go almost every day to the store for something,” Brian said with a laugh. “If we’re going to make chicken, it’s about four pounds of chicken, a box of rice and a bag of steamed vegetables. And we’re going through a bag of Oreo cookies per week.”
“We need chicken and cows in the backyard,” interjects Heather. “Every year it’s interesting to see how different eating habits are, too.”
Heather said one of the biggest things they’ve learned over the years to help ease the transition for players and families is the constant communication with mom and dad back home.
“I usually ask mom what comforts him if he has a bad day or when a game doesn’t go right. When they’re moving in, we make sure to give the families plenty of space to make the room their own and settle in and say goodbye.
“I’ve even asked what type of clothing detergent they like because sometimes it helps if your clothes smell like home.”
The most rewarding part for billet families like Brian and Heather is becoming that home away from home for these players while they pursue the dream of playing the sport they love.
“It’s special when the boys text on the holidays or just say hi,” said Brian, who has a map with stickers of all the places former billet players have gone for college and professional hockey. “It reminds us what we’re doing is a good thing.
“Every season is a different dynamic with different kids, but the same thing is that the parents and kids are always great. It’s not perfect, obviously, but by in large it’s been a really positive thing for us to do and we really enjoy it or we wouldn’t be doing it.
“It’s such a joy for us to watch the kids have their dreams come true. Seeing them sign their NLI’s or sitting at the dinner table and talking about who’s coming to scout them this weekend, who’s getting calls from different teams. Just seeing the kids excel and make it, that’s what it’s all about.”