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Billet families help Janesville Jets players' careers take off

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
October 30, 2011
— A billet family is like a family that hosts foreign students, except everyone speaks the same language.

In this case, that language is hockey.


In August, about 25 boys and young men skated into town to pursue their hockey dreams as members of the Janesville Jets. The youngest is 16; the oldest is 20. They come from all over the United States, toting hockey sticks and looking for three square meals and warm beds.


It is a system peculiar to the sport, as 28 junior hockey teams in the North American Hockey League act as a sort of farm system for colleges.


The hockey players interviewed said the hardest thing they had to give up was their family lives. Volunteer billet families fill some of that void.


Boys who want to play for Division I college teams such as UW-Madison leave home when they are young and put in their time on junior hockey teams. Those who don’t get scholarships hope to at least play competitive hockey on Division III teams, such as at St. Norbert’s in Green Bay.


Dane Litke, the Jets’ head coach, said 86 percent of his players in the last two years have gone on to play either for Division I or Division III programs.


“It’s a major commitment from the player and parents, but the potential rewards are fantastic,” said John McCally, general manager of the Jets, a junior A hockey team. “Not only in hockey, but also in growth as a person and as a young man.”


The boys are disciplined and focused on their goals. They have strenuous practice schedules and strict curfews, and their weekends are filled with games.


Younger boys attend Craig High School until 1:30 p.m. before heading off to practice. They don’t take part in normal high school activities such as proms, football games or extra-curricular activities, and they tend to avoid girls so they can focus on hockey. Older boys might take on part-time jobs or take classes online.


The boys also might not befriend many classmates, but they typically bond with team and billet family members.


For their part, billet families often have an interest in the sport, and many of the parents or their children have played hockey.


Players pay $300 a month to offset costs for their billet families. If a family goes away on a trip, other adult supervision must be arranged.


Some placements work better than others.


“We always have a few kids who have some issues,” Litke said, ranging from allergies to the family pet.


“We try to fix them (the problems) as best as we can,” Litke said. “Sometimes, they can’t be fixed, and the kids move to other families.”


The billets


The two families and four boys interviewed for this story had only positive things to say about their experiences in billet families. When they gather together, they share inside jokes, friendly banter and camaraderie.


The billet families attend home games, often waiting for their charges outside the locker room. They also tend to stay in touch when players leave the team.


This is Diane Runde’s third year as a billet family member. Her guests this year are Garrett Cecere, 16, of Des Moines, Iowa, and Bryan Kronberger, 18, of Rhinelander.


Diane also has a son, Justin, 15, and a daughter, Anne, 11.


“It’s just like having two more kids, except you don’t have to be so—so mommy,” she said.


Giving the boys pointers on hockey is not her job, Runde said, although she hears that some families do get too involved in the players’ hockey lives.


For Diane’s kids, it’s almost like having older brothers. They watch TV together and play videos games. They are partial to “Extreme Couponing.”


Diane tries to gather the group for dinner every night, and they eat out on Sundays.


The boys do their own laundry, clean up after meals and keep their rooms tidy. If Diane is gone, they get dinner on the table for the younger children.


Diane has dealt with just about every injury—broken bones, torn ACLs, bruises and concussions, even the flu.


The Rundes plan to attend an upcoming hockey game at UW-Madison to visit a player who now plays for the University of Denver.


The hardest part?


“When we have to say goodbye,” Diane said.


Maria and Dean Oines and their daughter, Alex, 20, who played high school hockey, have hosted 14 different boys in the last three seasons. The rotation of players in their home has come about due to trades.


This year, the family is hosting Adam Frank, 20, of Clarkston, Mich., and Pijus Rulevicius, 19, of Warrenville, Ill.


“We talk,” Maria said. “I don’t see myself as a parent, but if they ask parental advice, I talk to them. Like my own kids.”


Alex and the boys watch movies and baseball games together.


“Everybody has their own thing,” Pijus said. “We all usually come together (at) dinner.”


The Oineses said billet families must learn not to take the trades personally.


“It’s a business decision,” she said. “You do feel for them (the boys) because they’ve become a part of your family.


“I approach it like a boarding school or prep school,” Dean said. “They’re looking to get to the next level. This is their job.”


The games are social events for the Oineses. When the boys are away, they watch the games streamed live online.


Mom tries not to cry


Garrett recalled how hard it was on him and his mother when his brother, now 21 and playing at Michigan Tech, left home at age 14.


“My mom sat at home the first month and cried,” he said.


Two years later, Garrett left home, too.


“Growing up in Iowa, there’s not a lot of hockey,” Garrett said.


Garrett’s mom, Barb Cecere, 47, said hockey is her boys’ dream, not hers.


“Let’s just say they were the only ones not playing youth football,” Barb said.


“She wanted it for my brother and I, so we could pursue our dreams,” Garrett said.


Barb worries her boys will look back and say, “I never went to my senior prom.”


“But that’s not want they want,” Barb said. “That’s the stuff that makes a difference to a mom. My oldest son told me, ‘Mom, I’m not going away from home to go to dances and football games,’” she recalled.


“It’s really like their jobs at a young age,” Barb said.


“From my perspective as a parent, I try not to cry too much or let them know you miss them, but it happens,” Barb said.


“It’s a huge commitment for these kids and a huge sacrifice to be away from home and their family.


“I cry every September for like the whole month,” she added. “It doesn’t get easier. Every year when the kids leave, it doesn’t get easier.


“That’s why the billet system is so important,” Barb said.


Being in the right home makes all the difference in the world, she said.


“It can make or break a kid living away from home,” Barb said.


Parents are grateful their children are safe, are eating good food and are being cared for in family environments with responsible adults.


“You just make them comfortable,” Barb said. “You’re not a fan; you’re not a parent. You’re just an adult presence in their lives. Every kid needs that.


“I’m very, very lucky,” Barb said. “I have two great boys. They’ve given a lot and made the sacrifices.”


In exchange, they meet wonderful people and experience different cities.


“The hockey world actually is very small,” she said. “It really is a community.”


Barb and her husband often split up on weekends so one of the parents is at as many games as possible. And with 28 junior hockey teams in North America, being in the Midwest is more desirable than Alaska, Barb said.


Leaving home


Garrett, who at age 16 is the youngest Jet, already has been drafted to play next year with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. He’s verbally committed to play for Colorado College in 2014.


Garrett lived in a dorm at a prep school in Minnesota when he was 14.


He said he prefers a billet family because he feels more at home.


“You get a home-cooked meal instead of a dining room,” Garrett said. “It’s nice to have someone to come home and talk to instead of being around a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds. Diane’s always been nice.


“People think it’s weird,” Garrett said. “It’s actually not. You live with a family for nine months, you get to know them really well.”


It’s just a matter of finding out where the cups are and learning how to treat the dog, he said.


Bryan said he’s doing what he’s always wanted to do.


“I always wanted to play hockey and get better and pursue a scholarship somewhere,” he said.


Bryan said his parents “took it kind of rough” last year when he left home, but this year was a little better for them.


Pijus went to Latvia when he was 12 years old and played there two years. There, the hockey players lived in one house.


“To play hockey, you give up parties, girls,” he said. “You give up everything.”


Pijus likes the billet system and the family atmosphere it provides. The Oineses are “really good people, very supportive,” he said.


Adam left his family when he was 18.


Last year, he played in Port Huron, Mich., and saw his parents more. This year, they are seven hours away.


“I miss them,” he said, adding he feels like part of a family living in a billet home.


Adam said he’s willing to give up everything to reach his goal.


“If I don’t reach it, it’s still a great experience to go through,” Adam said.


“We’re used to being on our own,” Pijus said. “You definitely get used to it.”


“It’s just something you have to do sometimes in life,” Garrett said.


“It’s fun,” Bryan said.


“It’s everything,” Garrett said.



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