Local Families Step Up to House Spirit Players

    icon Sep 21, 2023
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One of the integral parts of the Saginaw Spirit organization is the crucial role billet families play in the personal development of the players.

While the primary focus of the organization is to develop the players for advancement to higher levels of play, they also have an associated goal. That goal is not just to develop successful hockey players but to build and instill the character that produces a group of successful men.

A vital factor in accomplishing that goal is assigning players to billet families who serve as authority figures, role models, and extended family to their assigned player. The efforts of the billet families make a significant difference in the lives of the young men who have left their homes and families to pursue a dream.

With the proper billet family, players can show dramatic changes in their confidence level, grade point averages, social graces, behavior, work ethic, relationship to others, and much more. The benefit derived from placing the players with billet families is truly immeasurable.

For the organization, the player and the family, it’s definitely a win-win-win.

Billet families open their home to out-of-state and/or international players. For many of them, this will be their first time away from home while they pursue the next step in their hockey career.

Every season the Saginaw Spirit seek local families to become billet families. Host families may be two-parent families, single-parent families, and occasionally an “empty nester.” Players typically arrive in early August. The host family commitment is through the end of the hockey season. Most times an arrangement is made between the player’s family and the billet family for the player to stay until the end of the school year.

Dave and Diane Bearss have billeted for the past five seasons, opening their Saginaw Township home to Spirit players.

“Presently it is just my husband and myself; our grown children are out (of the house) and have families of their own,” said Diane Bearss. “Our children call the hockey boys their hockey brothers!”

“Currently, we have Calem Mangone who is starting his third season with us, and it’s the first season having Joey Willis with us.” Mangone is from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. Willis, meanwhile, hails from Elmhurst, Illinois.

Yes, billet families can host more than one player.

While most billet families will take in one player, teams typically allow up to two players per family. This helps players share transportation and food expenses. Plus, it’s a great way for players to provide company for one another. The main requirement is that each player has enough space in their living arrangements at the billet’s home. Each player should have their own bed, dresser or closet. Players will provide their own personal care items, clothing, cell phones and computer.

“The boys arrive usually in late August in time for (training) camp to open,” said Bearss. “Over the years a few of them have come a couple of weeks early to start working out at the Dow. The great thing about the Spirit organization is they arrange transportation to and from practice. We live so close to Heritage High School that they can walk.”

Bearss indicated that they don’t really have “set” hours for dinner. She explained that because the boys’ schedules change all the time, they have to be flexible when it comes to dinner. Bearss noted that she tries to have dinner around 6-6:30 p.m. which gives the players some down time before dinner or if they are running late.

“I love to cook and I feel hospitality is my gift,” she said. “I know very little about hockey but I know kids and how scary it is to be away from home – some of them for the first time. We try to provide a safe environment, a loving atmosphere, fun and secure! We welcome their families into our home.”

While billet families are paid a monthly stipend, the real rewards are found in the relationships that are made with these players. Often times lifelong bonds are cultivated.

“We have had a great experience,” she continued. “The Spirit organization is very organized. We call these boys are kids. You cannot have someone live in your home for nine months and not become family.  We treat the boys like we would want our kids treated.  They become a part of your family for life. We love to see the boys grow up and mature in their time here in Saginaw. We have them come back and visit and stay in touch. It has been a great experience. Especially watching the boys move on with their hockey dreams.”

Another Saginaw Township family – Trace and Kelly Hendrick and their children Liam (12) and Ellie (9) – have opened their home to Spirit players for the past three years.

“We began the process a couple of years before that, meeting with Spirit Assistant GM Brian Prout to see if it was something we'd be interested in,” explained Trace Hendrick. “He came to the house, met our family, and learned a little bit about us and how we are as a family. He does that with everyone so he can try to pair up players with families who will be a good fit. For example, some players want to be around kids or pets, to feel at home and that's something that Brian (Prout) looks for. The final season before Covid, we were on the list to potentially get a player at the trade deadline but it didn't work out. And then during the cancelled season we hosted a player for a few weeks during workouts and that player has been with us for the last three years.”

 Hendrick said that Andrew Oke, a native of St. Johns, MI., fit in well with his family and immediately became a big brother to their children.

 “He (Oke) even came up and surprised Kelly one year for Mother's Day which was really special. We've gotten to know his family very well and see them at different times outside the season since they're from Shelby Township.”

Oke, 19, a 6-foot-2, 201-pound netminder, will be living with the Hendricks about nine months – depending on the success of the team.

“This year with Saginaw hosting the Memorial Cup, we're excited that he'll be with us more like 10 months since the season will go into June. We actually enjoy the months during the season because it forces us to sit down as a family more, often for dinner. The team is usually on a pretty regular schedule and Andrew does a great job of communicating with us when he may be running late or is going to go out with the boys to eat. With two kids in sports and activities, we're not always around but we'll usually have something ready for him (to eat) or he picks up something on the way home. Communication is key though and it's not always easy for 16 to 20-year-old boys, but it's something that we've stressed with him and the team stresses that as well.”  

“We have absolutely loved our billet experience and encourage others to do it as well,” said Hendrick. “Drew was always very comfortable with us but now that we’re in our third year with him, we can definitely notice that he's even more at home and relaxed and the house actually feels a little empty right now while he's out in Arizona for the Coyotes' training camp. While we've loved our experience with Drew, I'm not going to lie. Watching a goalie in the games can be pretty stressful and it does change how you watch the games. We definitely feel like we're part of his journey toward professional hockey and it's hard not to get invested in the ups and downs of the game. At the same time, one of the really cool things about being involved on the billet side is that it does get you "behind the scenes" of the players on the ice and you know their nicknames and what they're like off the ice which we really like. The billet experience has been so rewarding for our family and we look forward to watching how he navigates life just as we would for our own children.”


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