In the following Q&A Minor.Hockey.Life. interviews one of its regular contributors about the concerns parents have when their teen is living away from home for the first time and billeting.
Did you have reservations about allowing your teenage son to live away from home?
Oh, I had reservations, for sure, but the way I dealt with my fears was to read everything about the experiences of junior hockey players that I could get my hands on, including some harrowing tales of alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, and hazing.
Was that helpful?
I’m not sure that was. Most of the stories were pretty frightening, as you might imagine. Many were written by former NHL and junior players, so it seemed as if the hazing, in particular, was not something of an issue anymore, but I could not discount any player’s experience.
Based on what you’d read, did you discourage him?
No. Neither my husband, nor I were willing to dissuade him from playing for a team just because he would live away from home. The concerns were ours, not our son’s. The first season he played for the major junior team that drafted him, and he was placed with a family that he was comfortable with. Our billeting concerns were allayed fairly quickly.
So, you had faith in the system?
Well, to a certain degree, you have to have faith in the system, but as a parent, you also have to be diligent and advocate for your kid. If anything comes up, you have to deal with it straight away. Many times, players — especially rookies — are not willing to be vocal about their discomfort. Hockey players tough it out.
What concerned you most about your son living away from home?
I had general concerns. For example, I understood that he would be a rookie playing against older, stronger players, that we would be going to a new school and juggling homework with the numerous team events (personal appearances, community events) that they are required to attend. A full timetable, plus he would be living in unfamiliar surroundings. The list seemed endless.
In the past few years, hazing stories had taken a backseat to mental health news stories, so that was top of mind, but at the same time, I was confident in his mental toughness. At times, it seemed as if I was inventing things to worry about.
I assume most parents are just looking for a solid billeting situation.
That’s true. And we wanted that, too. Besides living a distance away, you’re living under someone else’s roof, and required to live by a different set of rules.
My worst fears were never realized; however, there can be a downside to living with a billet family. Food and shelter top the list of less-than-ideal situations: hospital ward-style sleeping arrangements, bad meals, no meals, overly-invested billet parents, or lack of supervision, and a general lack of privacy. And any discomfort can be compounded by unrealistic expectations. There are expectations on all sides—the player’s, the billets’, the parents’.
Billeting means long-distance parenting. It’s hard to know if when something is wrong when you’re communicating primarily through text messages.
I guess there is always FaceTime, or Skype.
I had planned to do just that, but I discovered that video conferencing, which is what FaceTime and Skype are, is a public conversation. There’s little privacy. There’s supposed to be a designated area in the house that is for use by the players only, but even when that’s the case, often other players are present. And when you go out after games, it’s to a public place. Usually, a restaurant, so if there are any issues—the kid isn’t getting playing time, he’s being verbally mistreated by the head coach, is consistently a healthy scratch, doesn’t like the billet’s cooking, or dogs, or kids— it is a challenge to have a meaningful conversation when these personal issues arise.
So, technology did not make the transition any easier for you?
Despite the number of new and interesting ways in which technology keeps us connected, text messaging and telephone calls, and even Skype/FaceTime, are appointment conversation. These formats do not adequately replace the casual conversations and natural discussions that happen when you live in the same house. As I said, it’s distance parenting.
Also, the team owns your kid’s time. That is, a player’s schedule, on- and off-ice, is set by the team. Players have practice, community events, personal/team appearances, dryland training, and team-building sessions. For kids who are still in high school there are classes and homework. It’s a challenge to squeeze time into your child’s schedule.
Was this “distance parenting” a challenge through-out the season, or did you get used to it?
It continued through the season, lessening a little as the season went on, but also, it seemed as if when one concern abated, it was replaced with another. School was settled, then it was about playing time, rookies are often healthy scratches (unless you’re drafted in the top four), so that emotional disappointment had to be supported. Switching schools at the end of the season was a hassle, for sure, because our son’s school at home was not as co-operative as we expected when it came to adding him to classes already in-progress.
One thing that never went away, during all of junior hockey was perfectly described in a by Peter Soberlak in a documentary based on Sheldon Kennedy’s book Why I Didn’t Say Anything. Soberlak was one of the players on the Swift Current Broncos and survived the bus accident in 1986, and he made this point: “. . . all of a sudden, as soon as you enter that world, your parents, or people that care for you, they’re no longer welcome.”
Your son belongs to the team for eight months of the year, and your input, your presence is unwanted, unwelcome. You feel that in an unmistakable way.
Did you see any signs of the issues you worried most about?
No. And what surprised me most, I think, was that everything I worried about did not happen, but a bunch of non-billeting stuff I didn’t prepare for did. There was some general dissatisfaction with one of the billeting houses, but the two players rode it out until the end of the season then provided their input to the coach in the year-end meeting. Sometimes billets have an unrealistic view of what young players living away from home need in terms of food, shelter, and personal space.
Early one, we would talk to other team parents and saw that most were dealing with similar issues. Advice from the veteran junior hockey parents really helped.
There seems like much for a parent to consider, especially when players are 15- and 16-year-old boys.
It can be overwhelming for parents, so it’s good for them to ask questions and stay in touch with their kids on a regular basis, and see them in person as often as possible. It’s good to be informed about your role as a parent in the billeting process and the role of the billeting parents. I would say that you have to also advocate for your child’s safety and welfare. Always. Plus, you have to know that you have the right to move your kid into a different situation, if things are not working. Usually, there is movement at the beginning of the season, so if it’s not working, get on it.
Often the issues that arise are because the player-billet is not the right fit. And the sooner the billet co-ordinator knows that the kid isn’t comfortable, the sooner they can get settled in elsewhere.
Most hockey kids, whether rookies, or traded players, quickly find their spot on the team, but if the family is not a good fit, the anxiety and dissatisfaction will show up on the ice and in the dressing room. It’s in the team’s best interest to have home environments that are suitable to hockey players.
We will continue this conversation in a subsequent post.