How billet families provide a home to Chicago Cougars junior hockey players
Several years ago, Bartlett resident Samantha Parkhurst remembers hearing about a junior hockey team coming to the area.
That team turned out to be the Chicago Cougars, a Tier 3 Junior A hockey team that competes in the United States Premier Hockey League -- the largest junior hockey league in the United States. The team is composed of hockey talent and future college stars ages 16-20. The Cougars played their inaugural season out of the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates and now call the Leafs Centre in West Dundee their home rink.
Some of the Cougars players come from out of state to play and some even from out of the country.
"My husband said three or four years ago that a hockey team was coming and there was a billet program available," Parkhurst said.
By definition the word billet means "a place, usually a civilian's house or other nonmilitary facility, where soldiers are lodged temporarily."
In other words, the Cougars were looking for local families to act as hosts for their players during the season, providing a stable, welcoming and comfortable environment for them to live in while they ply their trade on the ice.
Fast forward a bit and Parkhurst encountered the billet offer once again at the Triphahn Community Center and Ice Arena in Hoffman Estates where her son practiced with his WolfPack hockey team.
"All of a sudden we happened upon it at our own rink," she said.
And two years later now, Parkhurst can't stop singing the praises of being a Cougars billet family. Her family hosted Cougars player Alex Jones the past two years and is slated once again to be part of the highly successful host-family program.
"I give it a 10 out of 10," she said. "When Alex moved in he had never been to Chicago, so he learned a lot about city life. He had never been in an airport and ended up doing that. He had a lot of first experiences with us. My husband taught him how to go under the car and change the oil. We taught him how to fold a fitted sheet. It's nice to see people grow like that. He was able to focus on hockey while he was with us and we put him up here with everything he needed."
Parkhurst said Jones, a Wisconsin native, became part of the family.
"We would go to dinner with him," she said. "He was included in our family. He went to hockey practice and games and when he was home here he was part of the family. He'd come outside and shovel snow with us. It was a very awesome experience."
Carpentersville resident Stephanie Kunkle and her family also have served as a billet host for two years and are signed up to do it once again. Kunkle's son, a Jacobs High School student, plays for the Kings high school program that encompasses players from Jacobs, Huntley, Dundee-Crown, Hampshire and Burlington Central high schools.
Kunkle, whose family hosted St. Louis native Adam Ryffel for two years, said she became aware of the team after seeing the news of former Cougars player Matt Olson being seriously injured in a 2016 game.
"I saw the story on the news and I didn't even know the team was here," she said. "I ended up looking into the billet program. I can't say enough about the hockey community and the families. Hockey has been so good to us. We wanted to pay it forward and help out a kid by being a host family. Our son is an only child so it's like having a big brother in the house. It's been a wonderful experience."
The Cougars billet program is spearheaded by team housing coordinator Susan Goldwater of Schaumburg, who has placed players with families in communities ranging from Bartlett to Carpentersville to Schaumburg.
"These boys go into these host homes and they are treated like they are part of the family," said Goldwater. "Even after they leave, the families stay in touch."
Goldwater is a practitioner of the billet craft as well, having housed numerous Cougars players since the team's arrival in the area. Her family has hosted players who have hailed from New Jersey, Illinois, and even Russia. She most recently hosted New Jersey native Al McPhee, the Cougars' team captain from last year.
The team has had players come from Belgium and Canada as well, and Goldwater noted the team will welcome a French player this season.
"You get tearful when they leave because they become part of your family," said Goldwater, who also started the team's booster club last season where monies raised go back to the players in the form of locker-room snacks, snacks for long bus rides on road trips and other miscellaneous gifts for the players. "You get close to them and when they are gone you miss them."
The team also has experience with high-school-aged players and the academic aspect of their journey. "Sometimes a player comes along who is high-school aged and needs to balance the hockey schedule while attending school," said Goldwater, who has opened up her family's home as well to parents of out-of-town Cougars players. "A couple of seasons ago we placed a player in a home who was coming in as a junior in high school and Jennifer Beers, the student services director at Hoffman Estates High School, was extremely helpful in navigating the process of enrolling the player."
Goldwater is in the process of finding interested billet families for the 2018-2019 Cougars season. The season begins the weekend of Oct. 5 at the Leafs Ice Centre, but host families are always needed. She noted host families do receive a monthly stipend for hosting a player.
"It's a lot of work to take in a player," she said. "It's another mouth to feed. We want to build up awareness about this program. It's a great program and these boys work hard and all are very grateful to have host families."
Parkhurst said the work Goldwater has done with the billet program is the reason why it continues to thrive.
"Susan makes sure the players are good fits with the families," she said. "She looks out for things like pet allergies. She wants to make it as comfortable as possible for the billet and the host family."
Kunkle added a byproduct of the billet family is natural increased exposure for the Cougars.
"I spread the word where I work and we're trying to get synergies going where the Kings kids go to Cougars game," she said. "The more families that know about this program the better. More people will go to the games and hopefully we'll get more billet families."
Chicago Cougars Billet Program FAQWhat is billeting?• Welcoming a dedicated young athlete into your home
• Providing a warm bed and comforts of home
• Offering nutritional meal and snack options
• Serving as a stable and supportive influence to an athlete living away from home, often for the first time
Why be a Cougars billet family?• Families receive a monthly stipend to offset expenses and free season passes to Chicago Cougars home games.
• Athletes are outstanding role models for their host families.
• Create lifelong relationships as families often keep in contact with their billets throughout their college or professional careers and beyond.
For information, contact Susan Goldwater at firstname.lastname@example.org