Bonnyville Pontiacs are preparing for an exciting season, and the Alberta Junior Hockey League club needs to find homes for some out-of-town players.
Assistant coach TJ Millar says retired people are excellent candidates to billet players for the season.
“If you have an empty room, and you want to have some company around the house, we’re very open and welcoming to anybody who is interested in becoming a billet,” he said.
The players come to Bonnyville focused on hockey and school as they vie for a scholarship to a US college. But after the season, they come away with lasting friendships with
their teammates, schoolmates, and especially their billet families.
Sharon Albers knows this firsthand. “I billeted for the Pontiacs for 16 years. I only missed a couple of years in there when my husband was not well,” she said.
“I have made the most incredible friends and I still have friends from the very first billet I ever had. I’ve been to a couple of weddings from some of my billets. You just make lifelong friends with these people.
“I’m still in contact with probably seven or eight families,” she said. “It’s just an incredible thing to do.”
Albers admits she spoils the players who stay with her. She makes all their meals, changes their bedding, washes their clothes, “but it’s something that I like to do,” she said.
“You know, they’re busy all day long normally. I’m retired, I don’t have to go out and work.”
A Junior ‘A’ hockey program is demanding, and Albers has found that the players tend to be highly-focused, highly-disciplined young gentlemen. In the rare instance where a billet isn’t a good fit, she says the club is open in its communications and quick to straighten things out.
“They all are striving to get to the next level. Ninety to 95 per cent of them are very disciplined. They’re here for hockey,” Albers said. “You get the odd one that just wants to have a good time. I think I’ve only ever had two out of the dozens that I have billeted over the years that were not suitable for my home.
“I don’t really have very many rules. Just respect my home, respect me and my husband when he was here. And with the exception of a couple, I have had just awesome billets.”
A billeting arrangement is great for the player and his host household, but it’s vitally important for the player’s family back home. Albers says she has formed lasting friendships with parents who are grateful for the care and support she provides.
“You get to be such good friends with their parents. And they are so appreciative. When a player gets a good billet, it is such a relief for the parents because for some of them this is the first time their child has ever left home,” she said. “It can be a scary thing for parents and for some boys.”
She does her best to make them feel at home.
“Most hockey players are pretty outgoing, but you get the odd one that’s pretty reserved. You have to kind of help bring him out of his shell,” she said.
Millar says that while moving to a new town for hockey season can seem hard at first, players develop an identity with their host community. Many of them maintain relationships with people they come to know in Bonnyville, and even return to live there. He says it’s “because of the community feelings and the people involved.”
Albers feels the same way.
“I think they’ll always have a connection to Bonnyville,” she said. “If they’ve had a good experience here with their billet people, they always seem to have a connection. There’s hardly any billet parent around that does not have relationships with the families long after the billets have gone.”
And that, she says, is her reward. The club does offer expense money—$400 per month—but a billet never makes money from the arrangement.
“They eat too much!” Albers says. “There is no way that you’re going to make money. You have to love the sport of hockey. You have to be willing to give of yourself, you know, you have to be
able to put yourself out there and go the extra mile and
help these boys achieve their goal.”
And part of supporting the player is going to the games. The Pontiacs give season tickets to billets. Albers doesn’t miss a game.
Millar says the club does everything it can to support billets like Albers. After all, he said, “without billets, we don’t have a hockey team in Bonnyville.”
For Albers, it’s a perfect arrangement: she gets to help her team and indulge her love of the game. At the same time she gets to help a young man reach for his goals, and she is able to share her home with someone.
And for all the seriousness of purpose, she says it’s
“Oh, they bring a lot laughter, yes,” she said.