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December 19th, 2007 Paul Gerald | Featured Stories
 

Billet, Sweet Billet

Off the ice with your average Portland Winter Hawk in his adopted home.

     
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Stick to it: Trystan Swiger gets a lot of hockey tips for a 5-year-old. Portland Winter Hawks Chris Francis (left) and Brett Ponich live with his family in Tigard.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

It’s one thing to have a teenager in your house, but things can get really weird if you happen to be hosting a young, athletic foreigner with a certain amount of notoriety.

Consider Randy Malin; he and his wife, Pam, have been billets—local families who host Portland Winter Hawks hockey players—for five years. In that time, Malin figures he’s seen it all, including girls parked outside his Sherwood home at 6 am hoping to catch a player on his way to school.

“It gets to the point sometimes where people come to the door asking for them, and I say, ‘Who? I don’t know that person. Go home,’” Malin says.

The Western Hockey League, which is for players 19 and under and spans all four Western Canadian provinces as well as Oregon and Washington, requires that its players attend high school or college. That leaves it up to each team to work with local families and schools to make sure the kids have a place to live and do well in school during the season, which runs from September through March.

The only time the players go home during the season is for 10 days over Christmas when the league takes a break until Dec. 28, allowing the teens to return to cities in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Sweden and the Czech Republic.

“They look forward to [going home],” Malin says, “and then they look forward to getting back, too.”

Michael and Judy Swiger got into billeting two years ago because they love hockey and wanted a mentor for their now 5-year-old son, Trystan. They host two players in their Tigard home.

“The players we had last year actually came back to stay with us in the summer,” Michael says. “We’re almost like a hockey bed and breakfast now…we’ve been to games in Chilliwack [B.C.] and met their parents, and usually I’m texting the parents during the games with updates.”

Life as a billet is a combination of discipline (enforcing a teamwide 10:30 pm curfew, for example), counseling and time management. Michael Swiger says sometimes they hear from their teen guests about dating. But he insists that many of the players stay away from such endeavors to concentrate on hockey even though being a player carries some cachet.

“There’s not a lot of fame,” Swiger says, “but sometimes when they ‘drop the Winter Hawks bomb,’ as they call it, there’s kind of a reaction.”

The team helps with education. Marcia Chisholm, director of player education, says her job is “to keep all 25 players in school.” Her day consists of contact among billets, players, coaches, local teachers and school counselors, and schools back home.

Winter Hawks president Jack Donovan says the team has one big stick it uses to keep players in line. “If they mess around with school,” he says, “they mess around with ice time, and that’s the biggest thing you can hold over them, because they want on the ice.”

Center Tristan King, a 17-year-old from Elk River, Minn. (pop. 16,447), says it was hard to leave home at age 15. But he got a billet family that included a gourmet chef to make his traditional pre-game meal of ravioli alfredo with chicken.

There are other advantages to the life, of course. Left wing Viktor Sjodin, a 19-year-old from Sweden, says being a Winter Hawk at Portland Community College “makes it a little easier to pick up girls.”

The billets work angles, as well. Swiger, who played hockey at University of Alaska-Anchorage, managed to get last year’s two players on his local league team for a tournament.

“Needless to say, we won,” he says. “It was after the season, and the coach said just don’t do it too much. I scored more goals than ever. It was awesome.”

Chris Francis, an 18-year-old center from Las Vegas who lives with the Swigers, has a slightly different version of that story.

“He just sat by the side of the net,” Francis says. “And I did all the work.”


FACT: Winter Hawks in high school attend class in the morning, come home for a rushed lunch, then head out for practice, workouts and maybe a team-run study session at the Memorial Coliseum.
 
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