In the weeks leading up to any junior-hockey season, teams are often in need of billet families willing to house their out-of-town players, and it can sometimes be a struggle to find places for all them.
In 2020, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that struggle has been magnified, according to Surrey Eagles’ billet co-ordinator Jim Turton.
The Eagles aren’t set to begin the BC Hockey League regular season until December, but they’ve been practising and playing exhibition games within their cohort groups for weeks, and a handful of players are still without permanent places to stay, Turton told Peace Arch News.
“We’re in desperate need for one (billet family), but I could really use four,” he said.
The pandemic has played a major role in billeting difficulties, he said. While some families that have served as billets in the past have declined this year because of COVID-19 concerns and a desire to keep their social bubbles as small as possible, a bigger issue, Turton said, is that families have less space in their home than they had previously, as spare bedrooms get turned into home offices.
“We only had one or two families say they were out because of COVID, but more often what I had was people telling me, ‘We’re forced to work from home now… and now we just don’t have the room anymore.”
Currently, Turton said, one high-school aged player, who is taking classes remotely, is commuting daily from his family home in Squamish – “That’s the one I’m desperate for,” Turton said – for afternoon practices at South Surrey Arena.
Another player currently lives in Coquitlam, while a third is finally living nearer the team after his grandparents made room for him at their home. As well, Turton pointed out, three players are currently living with head coach Cam Keith and his wife, who are expecting a baby later this year.
“I’d love to offload that burden on them and get at least one of those kids into a different house,” Turton said.
Serving as a billet family can be a rewarding experience – many players form friendships with families that endure long after their playing days are over – but there are certain responsibilities and guidelines that need to be followed.
As stated on the team’s official website, families need to be able to provide a private bedroom and closet, nutritious meals each day, a “patient, caring and friendly home environment,” and “the same guidance and attention you would want for your own children.”
There’s also a home visit required, and “we appreciate a police background check” among other details, Turton said, although right now “we just need to get these kids into a suitable home.”
Turton said the pandemic has caused problems in other ways, too. One potential new billet family – who was “really interested, just all over it,” – had to back out after expressing interest because the husband lost his job, which put the family in flux and no longer able to take on new responsibilities.
Some families, as well as team personnel, are also concerned with what happens if either a player or a member of a billet family contracts the COVID-19 virus.
Turton said he and Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld have had “ongoing conversations” about what would happen in either of those instances.
“What if somebody on the team gets COVID, and then the whole team is quarantined – what do I do with the billet families? And if a billet family comes down with a positive test, what do I do with that player? He has to be locked down, and kept away from the team,” Turton said.
“But the worst-case scenario is if a player gets it, and then the billet family has to be locked down, because we all have to work. Some of us are working from home, but a lot of us can’t.
“It’s a delicate balance, and this year, we have some very special families who’ve stayed involved with us, and we’re very grateful for them. And it’s going to take someone who sees the need here, and who has a kind heart and says, ‘OK, we can help out here.’”
All current players have been tested for COVID-19 and are asked daily about potential symptoms, Turton said.
As well, their individual bubbles are “even more restrictive than yours or mine.”
“They’re basically only to associate with their teammates, billet families and their own families. That’s it. There’s no random people around them – if they get together for a team function, there’s no outside guests, no girlfriends, no nothing,” he said.
Players haven’t taken issue with the restrictions and are simply happy to be playing hockey again, he noted.
“These guys, they take it serious. (Junior hockey) is a step on their journey, and they’re serious about it. We haven’t had a single issue with anyone having a problem with those rules at all.”
Though fans are not currently allowed at Surrey Eagles games – and the BCHL will likely start its regular season without them – the South Surrey team has come up with a way to show your support and make it feel as though you are there.
The team is currently offering fans a chance to buy a cutout of themselves, a family member or even a pet – 24 inches by 32 inches – that will be placed in empty seats at South Surrey Arena, and will be visible on the Hockey TV online broadcasts.
For one fan pic, the cost is $149, and the price drops to $129 each for two, or $100 each for three or more.
All money raised through the fundraising effort will go directly to offset costs that players are paying to play in the BCHL this season. The league instituted a pay-to-play model for the 2020-21 season in order for teams to be able to operate during the pandemic.