Four years ago, a nervous Jacob Wolter arrived in Helena.
Talented and ambitious, the teen was eager to get the next stage of his hockey career started -- but that next stage included something entirely new to the Fairbanks, Alaska prospect.
“It really was a totally bizarre experience,” Wolter said. “You’re leaving your town, you’re going to a totally new place, and you’re going to be living in a new home with, really, complete strangers. It was a little nerve-wracking, if I’m honest.”
Wolter was about to meet his new family. His billet family.
A billet, originally, was a military term which referred to a home in which a soldier was housed -- with or without the homeowner’s permission.
The word has also, however, been co-opted by junior hockey and other sports which require young players to leave home to play for a competitive team. Because when all of those 16- to 20-year-old players arrive, they need a place to live.
That’s where people like Randy Rose and his family come in.
Rose, his wife, Keiko, and daughter Kumi -- who will turn 13 in November -- have been inviting young players into their home for four years, ever since moving to Clancy from San Diego.
“We loved hockey there, and found out that there was a local boy, Theo Campe, from the same town we’d come from,” Rose said. “We said, ‘We’ve gotta watch him play.’ We watched him play and fell in love with the team.”
Rose soon became the president of the booster club, but wanted to do more. And that is when they decided to open their home to the Bighorns.
So, the Roses welcomed in a young man from Alaska.
“He was a very quiet young man with a good, good soul. And he was a good player,” Rose said. “He might have a hard game some nights, and we’d sit here on the couch until 11:30 or 12 and talk about it, and I’d just give him my ear and some advice.
“And now, every Father’s Day, he’ll still send me a text message and tell me how much the time I spent with him after those game meant to him."
That gets to the heart of what billeting is all about. Because just as much as these players need a place to sleep, eat and air out their gear, they need a support system. Many are away from home for the first time, and it comes at a pivotal period in both their lives and hockey careers.
These people aren’t just offering a room. They are offering the chance to join their family for nine months. In many ways, billet families are the backbone of a successful organization.
Players will eat meals and take day trips with their billet family. They’ll help with homework and go to the movies with the older children in the house and roll around on the floor with the younger ones. And many of them will, like everyone else in the house, be expected to contribute when it comes to chores.
Wolter was in Helena for two seasons, though in the 2013-14 campaign he was called up to the Tier II Kenai River Brown Bears midseason. He’s now at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and will return to school soon after enjoying the rest of his summer off in Fairbanks.
He is effusive in his appreciation of the Rose family.
“Mr. Rose instantly made me feel like a member of the family. He was great,” Wolter said. “He never asked anything of me -- he just expected me to be a member of the family. I had some chores, made sure my room stayed clean … and mowed the lawn every once in a while. Though, I’m not sure if I ever did the whole thing.
“He’s a great man. I could talk about him all day if I wanted to. He made my experience a lot better than it could have been.”
Caitlin Senechal is in her second year as Helena’s billet coordinator, and has also opened her home to players. The practice is a bit full-circle, as her husband, Adam, is a youth hockey coach and spent his childhood in a billet home.
Senechal said while the process isn’t as easy as simply offering up that spare room, that’s also what makes it so rewarding.
“It’s not just giving a player a room in your house and letting him do whatever. We want him to eat dinner with us and to be around. It’s almost just like having another kid,” she said. “We have three young children, and we love it. Our boy plays hockey. He’s 7 now, and he idolizes those players that come into our home and dreams to be like them one day.”
These aren’t isolated cases, either.
Rose, who at times has had as many as three players in his home, said as long as players know what to expect and what is expected of them, problems are rare.
“These kids aren’t here for a party; they’re here because they’re committed to hockey, to the hockey team and to the brotherhood of players,” he said. “They’re looking to advance and, hopefully, get scholarships to move on to college. Most of these guys are very focused. They’re here because they want to work hard and want to succeed.
“We’ve had nothing but awesome experiences with our guys.”
For his part, Wolter said the experience can be equally positive for the players. But in order for that to happen, they have a part to play as well.
“Ultimately, it comes down to respect,” he said. “Complete strangers are opening their house to you and letting you live there for almost nine months of the year. You need to be respectful of them and their ideologies. You have to be polite. And try to fit it. Don’t be shy. Eat with them. Play with their kids if they have them. All they want you to do is teach their kids about life and hang out with them, and for you to be a respectful member of the family.
“Hockey players sometimes get a bad rap that we like to party and stuff. But we’re all just kids. If people are interested, you’re gonna love the experience. I can promise you that.”