Behind almost every bone-rattling slam into the boards and hat trick by the Spokane Chiefs is a local family that makes sure the hockey players get to practice, eat proper meals and complete necessary schoolwork.
The yearning to someday play in the NHL draws teenagers from as far away as Eastern Europe to towns like Spokane and Moose Jaw before they even finish high school.
As a result, the players who engage in the ridiculously long season (August to March and playoffs can stretch until June) can’t succeed without empty nesters and parents willing to essentially adopt them for a while.
“It’s almost like an exchange-student experience,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “They do make a difference in these young people’s lives and it’s very rewarding. I think the relationships they build with some of these guys over the years can be life-long lasting.”
The Chiefs are looking for a few families, preferably those who live near the Spokane Arena and the South Hill, to accept the challenge of becoming a surrogate hockey mom or dad.
The South Hill is a preferred location because the Chiefs have partnered with Ferris High School to make sure the students get the proper coursework to match the school requirements at home, wherever that may be.
Heidi Holbert is the team’s host family coordinator. She also has hosted players in her home for the past 17 years.
“For me and the families I look for, it’s about giving back,” she said. “They are here so long and from so far away – especially the Euros – their parents need to know that they are safe and taken care of. I would want that for my own son.”
The Chiefs pay the families, or billets, a $250 monthly stipend to help cover the cost of groceries needed to fuel young men, ages 16 to 20, who “eat, drink and sleep hockey,” Holbert said.
“They are here for basically two reasons: to go to school and to play hockey,” she said. “But they are also teenagers learning how to get proper nutrition and proper rest. The host families play a big role in helping them getting that figured out.”
The team tries to cluster the players near each other because they sometimes make two or three trips to the arena each day, she said. The host parents don’t have to know a thing about hockey, although the Chiefs do provide two season tickets in addition to the stipend.
“It’s a perfect program for the empty nesters. When the boys have road trips, they are sometimes gone two or three days or a week,” she said. “So they do get a break versus the exchange-student program where the student is always with them.”
In for life
Holbert said she maintains relationships with former players and has attended their weddings and hosted their parents in Spokane.
“They they get married and move on and have children, you are still part of that,” she said.
Stacey and Brad Carruthers have hosted players for parts of six seasons. They live on the north side, so they generally get older players who are already finished with high school.
Last year, the Carruthers, who have four children under 12, hosted team captain Reid Gow.
“We’ve had really great guys,” Stacey Carruthers said. “The relationships alone are awesome.”
Carruthers is a stay-at-home mom who relishes the busy schedule of dealing with her younger children and getting the players back and forth to practice.
“It’s just a lot of fun for us. We are a hockey family. My husband coaches and we have two boys playing,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll have a third playing when he’s old enough.”
The team does research to make sure the players are compatible with a home, such as the Carruthers, who have younger children.
But Speltz said sometimes the matches don’t work out as planned. He described a situation in the late 1990s when two older players were matched with a new host family and the players were sure it wasn’t going to work.
Speltz instructed them to sit down and talk with the family, and they held off for about two weeks.
“When they did talk they learned the issues they had with the host family wasn’t near as big as the issues the host family had with them,” he said. “They are young people growing up. They have to understand what is acceptable and what is not.”
After talking about the issues, the players stayed with the host family.
“And now they are life-long friends,” Speltz said. There is no ‘turn to page 44 for the right answers,’” Speltz said. “It’s a common-sense approach. But the players have to understand what is acceptable to the family. And, the family has to be willing to communicate that.”
Feeding the beast
Carruthers said the stipend mostly covers the groceries needed for the players. But, she said any host parents who regularly eat out would be spending more.
“The amount of food wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” she said. “They get sick of pasta. They get a lot of pasta on the road. The Czech kid loved homemade soup. Reid’s favorite snack was just chips and cheese.”
In addition to meals, the players know they must help with chores, just as they would back home.
“The biggest responsibility is just to be kind to the kids,” Carruthers said. “They clean up their rooms before a road trip. They are respectful. It takes time to become their home.”
But the biggest challenge the Carruthers faced was learning how to communicate with someone just being introduced to English.
The Carruthers’ second player was Marek Kalus, from the Czech Republic. He came to Spokane with almost no English speaking skills.
“You learn really quick that ‘Yeah, OK’ means ‘I have no idea what you are talking about,’” Carruthers said. “You do a lot of pointing. All of his knowledge of the United States came from movies. We had lots of laughs. He did, too.”
The family has already vacationed last year at Banff National Park with former player Colin Belcourt, of Red Deer, Alberta.
“I could see us taking vacations with Reid down the road as well,” Carruthers said. “They are just awesome guys. They become part of your family. We hate to see them go.”