The Lincoln Stars ice hockey team are off to a hot start this season, as they currently sit in second place in the Western Division of the USHL.
The Stars can thank players like Luc Laylin, Gleb Veremyev and Yu Sato for their abundant early success. However, none of these players are from Nebraska, so for the nine-month long season, they need a place to stay here in Lincoln.
This is where billet families join the lineup. Since USHL team rosters consist of players ages 16-21, many of them need housing and parental influence while they continue high school.
Billet families do just that, they are local families in Lincoln that agree to provide a home-away-from-home for the players, and they do everything they can to help the players be successful on and off the ice.
Artt Brey, a former USHL player, is an assistant coach and goaltending coach in his first year with the Stars. He also coordinates the billet program in Lincoln.
“I help create the communication between the coaching staff, the organization, and the billets,” he said. “Whether that be practices on certain days, or we have team meals on some days, or if we have special events going on I just try to make sure that that communication is there.”
A billet family has to be able to support a player in many more ways than simply putting a roof over their head. Brey says that being die-hard Lincoln fans is a must, and there’s an application interested families can submit. Once submitted, the organization then narrows down families that ‘fit the bill’ and match the players to a good family.
Billet families come in all shapes and sizes, whether it be a couple of empty-nesters looking to bring some company back into their home, or a young family just looking for a chance to support their hometown team.
Key responsibilities include providing ample living space, providing meals and transportation to practice if necessary, and overall making the players feel at home.
Sherri Hibbard and her husband John have been billeting for 14 years, and this is their first year without a player staying with them full-time. Since John is retiring, they decided that they could still help the team by being a “fill-in family” for when other billet families aren’t in town, so that players aren’t left hanging.
“One thing we learned in all these years was that when someone needs to be gone, the boys need to be somewhere,” Sherri Hibbard said. “Its hard sometimes to find places for them. So, we saw that as a way that we could really help out.”
Katie and Bo DuVall are also billet parents, and this is their first season helping to host a player for the Stars.
Katie is from Lincoln, and she grew up going to Lincoln Stars games, so the team has always been synonymous with family for her.
“My husband and I both love doing it,” she said. “My family is here in town and I’ve been a Stars fan for quite some time, my uncle has season tickets so it falls into being a big family event.”
The DuValls are housing Luc Laylin this season, who is playing in his first season for the Stars as a forward wearing number 19. The Hibbards helped house Laylin earlier in the season while the DuValls were on vacation.
Katie went to high school with several Stars players from 2009 to 2011, and she says she formed close relationships with those players. They would talk about how much they enjoyed their host families, and that stayed with Katie until she had a home of her own she could share with the team.
“Billet families are the heart of the team, and we’re die-hard stars fans, not just for one individual player,” she said. “It’s an experience where we get to see the players and the connections that they make with the team while they are here in Lincoln.”
The Hibbards, having billeted for more than half of the Stars existence in Lincoln, explain what goes on during a regular day in a hockey house.
“Lots of cooking. I started doing it by the month, figuring out what my menus were going to be because I struggled, especially when I was working full time,” Sherri says. “There’s a lot of organization that goes into it.”
But being a billet family sometimes means more than just giving them a home or putting food on the table.
Sherri says the responsibility goes far beyond the ice. Families must do more than just help the players physically prepare for competition, but they must support the players emotionally and mentally as well.
“We had a player, who within a few weeks of joining us, had lost his mom. So we were a strong support system for him that year,” she said. “That’s the beauty of it, we stay connected with our players and we make it a point to go see them when they make it in college.”
The Cotters had one player, Paul Cotter, who recently scored his first NHL goal last week with the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The players for the Stars have a full support system behind them. Coach Brey gives credit to the families who open their homes, the coaching staff, and the facility in a great city for the team’s success.
Coach Brey said his experience with billet families had been all positive so far, and being a former player that experienced living with billet families makes him an excellent resource for both the team and the families.
That experience gives him a deep sense of gratitude to each and every family.
“Without them we aren’t able to have a successful program,” he said. “Without billets opening their doors, not only to the Stars but to these players, they really provide the underlying heartbeat of this organization. We wouldn’t be able to have this.”