Friday, July 5, 2013

Chapter 16: Mi Casa Su Casa-The Life of a Hockey Billet Family

The word, "billet" is a military term.  A billet refers to living quarters, originally a private home that was required to accept the soldier. In the hockey world it is used to describe both the host family and where a junior hockey player lives when he leaves home to play at the age of 16-20 years.  We became a billet family in the early 2000s.  

My friend, MF(Maynard Freeman) Schurman was the founder of the San Diego Gulls youth hockey program.  MF was a moose of a man.  He played a handful of games with Gordy, Mark and Marty Howe and the NHL Hartford Whalers in the late 70s.  He once nearly took my leg off in a senior league game with his slap shot.  MF owned the skate shop at the iceoplex as well as the San Diego Surf which was a junior B team in the Western State Hockey League.  The last two years of MF's involvement the league went to Tier 3 Junior A and now boasts 22 teams in 11 western states.  MF has since moved to the east coast where he coaches the University of Delaware D1 ACHA club program.  They won a natty title a couple of seasons back. 

Around 2001 or 2002 MF asked me if I could help him out by being a billet family.  It sounded like fun.  Definitely no way to make money.  The player pays $300 a month for room and board.  They eat nearly that much so it's at best a break even proposition in that regard.  A decade later and the amount they pay is still $300 a month.  My kids were ten and twelve years old.  We thought it would be fun.  It was.  At least it started out that way.

Our first billet.  The word is used freely.  Here it refers to the player..he was our billet.  The player would refer to us as his billet, billet house or billet family, or billet mom, dad, sister or brother.  Our first billet was Keith Tully.  We fell in love with Keith from day one.  He was a great kid.  He was seventeen, in his senior year of high school.  He was a goalie from Illinois.  The perennial league powerhouse, the Phoenix Polar Bears traded Keith to the Gulls.  The Gulls struggled.  They didn't win many games.  Keith would face upward of 70 shots in many games.  He broke a lot of goalie sticks over the frame of the goal in frustration.  He had good save percentage and attracted the attention of a lot of scouts.  He probably could have gone to school anywhere he wanted. The professional San Diego Gulls had their eye on him, but he was too young.  

Keith was a terrific role model for our kids.  He loved being around them and they loved him as well.  He and Max played a lot of floor hockey.  They played baseball.  Keith went to Bret's soccer games, even though he hated soccer.  He set the bar high and he was a tough act to follow.

Even though the Gulls struggled, Keith came back for a second year.  He graduated from our local high school, Scripps Ranch High and enrolled in community college in the fall. There was a girl friend.  There were many.  Most of them were psycho.  I forget this one's name, but her dad was an airline pilot. Keith was fascinated and developed a passion for flying.  He ended up quitting the Gulls half way through the season and started taking flight lessons at a local airport.  He abandoned goal tending and started playing senior league hockey with me as a forward.  Keith's temper didn't stop with his frustration at getting pelted as a goalie.  He got in more fights in senior league hockey than almost anyone I know.  

Keith's flying lessons progressed, he got his license and then moved away to become a flight instructor.  From there he started flying billionaires around in their private chartered jets.  After that he was hired by Continental Airlines which is now United.  This is about ten years later now and Keith is happily married, owns a home in Pennsylvania and recently had his first daughter....our first billet grand daughter!

No one could match Keith and they didn't for a number of years.  The next few year's billets were mostly forgettable, but three or four years later we got a kid named Kyle from Colorado.  Kyle was....awkward.  He didn't relate to us socially.  We did everything we could to include our billets and have them be a part of our family.  We served dinner at home every night from Monday through Thursday.   The next three days usually involved games and travel.  My kids had their hockey or soccer and softball.  Recently, my daughter and wife started going their own way on weekends...they were off to softball and soccer games and tournaments, often during the same weekend. And Max and I were off to his games around Southern California.  Our billet, in this case Kyle, would go on the road for a three game series in L.A. or Arizona. 

We have always eaten healthily.  Each season as we got our new player, my Kyle would ask their mother if they had any favorite dishes or recipes.  When my Kyle asked, awkward Kyle's mom what he liked for breakfast she said, "donuts."  
I'll refer to him as Kyle V.  so as to not confuse him with my Kyle, my wife.  Kyle V. liked junk food.  He had a car.  We suggested if he wanted anything he could drive down the road to the grocery store and buy whatever he likes.

Kyle V went to high school with Max.  Max was a freshman and Kyle V was a senior.  He didn't make one friend at school all season.  He got home after practice, holed himself up in "my office" and would spend hours and hours on his computer watching Japanese anime, often until two a.m. or later.  We tried to include him.  We invited him to come watch the kids play in their games.  Things just did not click.

I got a call from MF. He said that Kyle V's dad had called and reported that Kyle complained that we weren't feeding him.  We didn't keep enough food in the house.  We forced him to come watch Max play hockey.  blah blah blah....Hmm.  We'd never seen anything like this.  

Things went along.  We tried to accommodate him.  One night I got a call from the kid's dad.  He told me that Kyle was upset.  He couldn't find anything to eat in the house.  Really?  I grabbed Kyle and while on the phone with his dad went into he kitchen. Kyle said there is no milk.  What's this?  Behind the nearly empty milk bottle was another full one.  Well, there's nothing to eat.  I pointed out to his dad, while Kyle was watching, the fresh fruit, the left overs from the previous few nights dinners.  We went to the cabinets and I showed him the soup, the noodles, bread, peanut butter and jam…everything.  There was plenty of food.  This was before smart phones, but I took pictures of everything and emailed them to his dad.  That was pretty much the end of the issue, but things never got comfortable in the house.

Kyle V got hurt in a game and spent nearly a month hanging out at the house watching his anime on the computer and eating his cookies and chips.  We ended up going to Vancouver for a tournament over the Christmas break.  While there, I got a call from MF asking me, "if I could take a new kid, he would find another place for numb nuts".  Sure!  Happily.  

The kid didn't say a word to me about it.  About two weeks later, in the middle of January on an early Saturday morning I woke up and went downstairs.  It was about 7a.m.  He was slinking out with the last of his stuff.  I asked him what was up?  He said, "uh, yeah, I was going to talk to you....I'm moving out"...No shit?  I told him a little notice would have been nice.  With that he was gone.  I did hear from MF that his dad wanted the balance of the months billet fee back since he was only there for 1/2 the month.  I didn't oblige.  I told him since he gave no notice and because he left the place, my office and his bedroom an absolute pig sty I would not be returning any money.  So that was that.  Things couldn't get worse.  Right?

About a week later we were expecting our new kid, Paul. Paul was driving in from Utah.  We were still getting over Kyle V and his awkward anti-social behavior.  We were hoping for the best with Paul.  MF assured me Paul was a great kid and we would get along fine.  Max and I drove about 15 minutes up the highway to meet him at a gas station.  We were waiting when an old Ford Bronco pulled in.  I walked up to greet the new fella when he opened the door to the vehicle.  Loud rap music blared, a pungent smoke billowed out.  A super friendly dude with metal piercings poking out of his chin, lips and eyebrows jumped out and shook my hand.  Definitely not anti-social.

Paul followed us back home to Scripps Ranch.  He came in and met my wife and daughter.  They didn't quite know what to make of him.  But he sure was confident and friendly.  A nice change of pace from what's his face.  

We were impressed with how outgoing he was.  He asked to borrow my laptop.  I gave it to him to use.  AOL was the big thing at that time.  he went on AOL instant messenger.  Up popped his buddy list.  The first category was "Girls I want to  f**K."  Nice.   I suggested he not let my wife see this.  

The next day he got up and found himself a job.  Again, we were impressed with his initiative.  As unconventional as he was we liked him.  He was friendly, outgoing, confident and funny.  His job was at a mall kiosk for a cell phone company.  You know, one of those annoying guys who bug you when you walk by them.  All in all he was an alright dude. 

 There is a list of rules that the billets need to follow..curfews, no porn, no smoking or drinking, no chewing tobacco etc.  One morning I came down to the living room.  On the floor by the couch was a bottle of dip juice.  Yuck. I had a word with Paul and he apologized and said he wouldn't do that in the house any more. Nuff said. 

About a month later we, my family, all headed up to San Jose for the California State championship playoffs.  We took the team bus.  That was about an eight hour bus ride.  I got a call from Paul on Saturday asking how the tournament was going.  I told him.  I will share with you a bit later. He asked when we would be coming home.  I told him it depended on how we did in our next game.  That was was all.  I didn't think much of it.

The next morning, Sunday, I got another call from Paul.  Again he asked when we would be home.  My antennae went up.  He seemed awfully concerned with when we were coming home.  I thought this was odd, so I called a friend near our house and asked if she would take a ride over and just walk in.  She did and when she got there she walked in on Paul and two girls.  They had been there partying all weekend.

I called MF and demanded he go right there and remove Paul and the girls from the house.  That was the last we ever saw of Paul.  It was the last we saw of nearly $1000 of jewelry as well.  Live and Learn.

We ended our billeting after this debacle.  We stopped for a few years until MF sold the team and the skate shop to Bruce Miller.  I'll tell you more about Bruce in a bit.  He became Max's bantam and midget coach for the next four seasons.  He also allowed me to be his assistant coach for the two seasons of midget hockey.  When Bruce bought the junior club from MF he changed the name to the San Diego Gulls.  They moved up to Tier 3 Junior A.  He was in desperate need of billet families and we consented to doing it again, but only if we could meet and approve of the players before hand.  

Despite these couple of bad apples, we loved nearly every one of our billet kids. Since Bruce Miller took over the team we've had nothing but great kids.  More about some of them later. I would frcommend this experience to anyone.

Since about 2007, when we once more started accepting billets and now, we've hosted six players.  Two times we've had a couple of boys at the same time.  At the time we started up again Max had moved off to go to prep school in New Hampshire and then played two years of junior hockey where he was also a billet.  During all that time, he and our billet boys never met.  There were times where he and our billet would literally pass each other in the sky as they were both flying home at the same time for Christmas break.  I have a few stories from Max's billeting experience but I don't have permission to publish them.  Sorry about that!  They are funny.

When we first started this venture my kids were ten and twelve.  The last few years my son had moved on and my daughter became a teenager.  That could have been a prescription for disaster but fortunately both she and our billets were good kids.  At least that's what I tell myself.  It was fun and interesting to watch as each year the hockey players coming in would be the same age, but my kids were a year older each season.

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