re some of the most important people in a junior hockey organization? Is it the coaches? The front office staff? The fans? While the former are certainly all correct, what’s missing from the list is the billet families. The pseudo families who are responsible for the care and supervision of young hockey players while away from their homes, families and the field of competition. The families who single-handedly make it possible for players to call Odessa home.
If you ask the Midland-Odessa families who billet players in their homes, they will tell you, it’s far more than what it seems on the surface.
Heather Buske served as the Jackalopes’ billet coordinator during the 2019-20 season. She and her husband Darin, however, have been billets for the Jackalopes’ past three seasons. Over those three years, the Buske house was called home by nearly 15 Jackalopes players. Whether serving as a season long home, or as a temporary home to players with shorter stints in Odessa, the Buske family happily welcomed each player.
Buske was introduced to and ultimately started billeting after attending a learn-the-game night at the Ector County Coliseum. A brief conversation with one of the Jackalopes’ coaches led to her becoming a billet.
“I was talking to the coach and I told him ‘I have an extra room,’” Buske said. “Then I get a phone call a few days later from the coach and he said ‘hey it’s just temporary but could he [a prospective player] come in and stay’ and I said ‘sure’. So, we ended up with one, and then two, then ended up with three that first year.”
It was somewhat strange at first for Buske, letting strangers into her home, but she was surprised at how quickly the players became extensions of her own family.
“It’s weird at first whenever someone says ‘hey this kid is going to move into your house’. You’re opening your home, you don’t really know them, you don’t know their family but it’s amazing how they just become part of the family immediately,” Buske said.
The players certainly elicited that sentiment back to their billet family, especially to the Buske’s young children. Adopting the role of big brothers to the Buske’s one-year old and a four-year old children, the players shared and became a part of the family’s most special moments as the kids began reaching their first milestones.
“Over the years they [the players] have seen a lot of their firsts, you know first crawl, their first words and walkings. They’ve been a part of that and cheered them on just like we were, so the connection that we have as far as being a part of our family and them loving on our children… It’s that feeling of them loving your child just as you would, it’s like a big brother,” Buske said.
One of the fondest memories of being a billet for Buske involves her son’s first play at school, an early morning performance attended by here entire family, including her billet players. The fact that they all took a keen interest in the activities of their billet brother was an eye-opening experience for Buske and is testament to the care and dedication junior hockey players have toward their billet families.
“It was early in the morning and the fact that the boys all got up, all wanted to be there, that was my first ‘a ha’ moment like ‘wow these kids really do care about us and I’m not just a house for them to stay in.’”
The Buske’s experience is not unique to their family alone. Kasey Sjoerdsma is also a Jackalopes billet and will be stepping into the role of billet coordinator for the upcoming 2020-21 season. Kasey and her family billeted six different players last season and have had a similar experience to the Buske’s in terms of generating a family atmosphere with the players.
“They really care about your home and they care about you and they really care about the culture,” Sjoerdsma explained. “They’re a long way from home and Odessa is not a typical hockey experience and hockey place.”
Jackalopes forward Isaiah Huempfner, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, credited his billet parents with helping him feel at home in West Texas and mentally coping with being so far away from home.
“When I left home it was really different for me to not be with my family, but having three little kids in the house and a growing family coming up, it was helpful for me in general just to keep my mind off being away from home,” Huempfner said.
Billets truly have an impact on the lives of the players that they care for, much in the same way a parent impacts the lives of their own children. They help the players grow as human beings and as members of society and when they reach life milestones, like college admissions, it is in large part because of their billet’s influence.
Buske recalled the times when she would get calls from her billet boys that they had gotten their acceptances to college and the emotion that came with it.
“I had no idea that was what it was going to entail. In the beginning, it was just ‘do you have a bed and can you cook for them?’” Buske recalled. “But when they get that acceptance to college and you’re one of the first people they call, some of them get excited, some of them cry. You can just hear the excitement and the first thing out of their mouths is ‘thank you so much for everything you did.’ Knowing you are a part of their future… it’s an amazing feeling, I can’t even describe it.”
The Jackalopes bring players from all over North America and Europe to play hockey in the Permian Basin giving billet families the added opportunity to learn about other cultures, growing their own worldview just as the players learn more about life in West Texas.
“I think it’s almost an opportunity to travel within the four walls of your home,” added Sjoerdsma, “because you get to experience the different regions of where they’re from.”
Jackalopes forward Ben Doherty came to West Texas from Minnesota. It was the kindness of his billet parents that helped him deal with the culture and climate shock of adjusting to life in Odessa.
“It was kind of a culture shock for me coming down from Minnesota,” Doherty said. “My billets were awesome in getting us kind of accustomed to and more into the West Texas lifestyle.”
The Odessa Jackalopes recognize the importance of their billets, which is why the organization provides each billet family with resources and assistance to help take care of their players. Being a billet for the Odessa Jackalopes means being a part of a first-class organization that treats their billets as family.
“The Odessa Jackalopes definitely take care of their billets, more than some of the other NAHL groups honestly. They have loved on them and know the importance of what they do and I feel like it’s nice to walk into a place where they know who you are and you’re taken care of,” said Buske.
Being a junior hockey player is a hard life of practice, games and constant dedication to improving your craft. Billets alleviate those challenges by giving players a safe and loving support system to help them through the grind of a 60 game season.
“Having them around was amazing, they were so supportive when we went through the highs and lows of the season. They were right there with us encouraging us and shooting us text messages before the games or after the games or whatever it might be.” Doherty explained. “So having them around, having that support system was absolutely fantastic for not only just like hockey but also mentally too, to be able to have someone to rebound ideas off of, talk after practice or a tough game, just to have someone there was awesome.”
Billets are the life blood of any junior hockey organization, providing players with a safe space to relax, eat and socialize. They help players acclimate the new and sometimes forging culture while also providing them with a strong family bond, teaching life lessons and helping to prepare them to become upstanding adults and citizens, all of which are key to advancement in life as well as in hockey.
“It’s life changing, it’s heart changing and it really is like growing your family in an instant,” Sjoerdsma said, “and whether you love hockey or you don’t that’s not so much what it’s all about. It’s about opening up your home and giving a space and a comfort to kids who are a long way from home and it’s transformative in your heart and in their hearts.”
Heather Buske summed up being a billet in a simpler way.
“They become your kids while they’re there.”
For more information or to apply to be a Jackalopes host family please contact the Jackalopes' billet coordinator 𝐊𝐚𝐬𝐞𝐲 𝐒𝐣𝐨𝐞𝐫𝐝𝐬𝐦𝐚 𝐯𝐢𝐚 𝐞𝐦𝐚𝐢𝐥 𝐛𝐢𝐥𝐥𝐞𝐭𝐜𝐨𝐨𝐫𝐝𝐢𝐧𝐚𝐭𝐨𝐫@𝐨𝐝𝐞𝐬𝐬𝐚𝐣𝐚𝐜𝐤𝐚𝐥𝐨𝐩𝐞𝐬.𝐨𝐫𝐠 𝐨𝐫 𝐛𝐲 𝐩𝐡𝐨𝐧𝐞 (𝟓𝟕𝟓) 𝟕𝟎𝟕-𝟐𝟔𝟓𝟓.