The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Eric Knopsnyder

September 2, 2012

Eric Knopsnyder | Becoming a hockey family in every sense

— Imagine getting out of bed, walking into your living room and finding a stranger sitting on your couch.

Frightening, right?

Nope, just the beginning of a bizarre new world that my wife, Tami, and I have entered.

We’ve agreed to be a billet – or host family – for the Johnstown Tomahawks, the city’s new junior hockey team. And just a few days into our arrangement, my wife found herself in that very situation.

Not wanting to just wade into the hockey family pool, we jumped in with both feet, telling the Tomahawks that we could take three players – who can range in age from 16 to 20 – for the next eight months.

It’s ambitious, to be sure, especially considering we don’t have any children of our own and are used to a big, empty (and quiet) home.

The arrival of three players – forwards Gage Christianson and Connor Wright as well as defenseman Ryan Devine – changed that quickly. We adapted just as quickly, as evidenced by my wife’s reaction – or lack thereof – to her morning encounter. She had the day off from work and didn’t head downstairs until about 8:30 a.m. Once there, she saw a figure sitting on the sofa and thought to herself, “Hmm, Ryan looks different in the morning.” But after having known him for just two days, who could blame her?

That assumption changed when the figure stood up and introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Kristaps,” he said.

Lucky, she and I have been very inquisitive about all things relating to the Tomahawks, so we already knew about Kristaps Bazevics, who is from Latvia and the lone foreign player on the team’s training camp roster.

“Oh, you’re the yoga instructor,” Tami replied, which probably left him more stunned than she was at finding a strange European in her house at 8:30 in the morning.

Bazevics explained to her that the Tomahawks had split up into two teams for practice that day and that the player providing his ride to the rink had an earlier practice than he did, so he was swapped out for a player at our house that day. He was let into the house and told to make himself at home until Devine, the only player at our house with a car, was ready to head out for their team’s practice.

The teenager sat quietly for an hour and a half, never turning on the television, and leaving the couch only to use a bathroom.

That experience was one of the many laughs we’ve enjoyed in our first few weeks as a billet family. But there has been heartbreak, too.

Devine was released from the team, a casualty of the limited roster space. Despite having spent just a week with us, we had grown quite attached to him. It was yet another reminder that while young players make up the league, it’s far different from the world of high school sports.

While Tami and I wouldn’t necessarily classify ourselves as hockey fans, we’re excited to be a part of the Tomahawks’ inaugural season.

Most of the Tomahawks are hoping to land a scholarship to play hockey in college, but they need help with housing, so they stay with billet families from the start of training camp in August to the end of the season in March – although a playoff run could extend that stay.

We’re thrilled to help them on their journeys.

In return for opening up their homes and hearts to players, billet families get a monthly stipend to help pay for food – although we’re learning that a 20-year-old hockey player can take down a plate of pasta as easily as he can an opposing forward.

Billets also get a season ticket for each player hosted, meaning that we’ll be able to cheer on “our boys” at every home game.

There was some initial discussion about how many of the games we would attend, but after seeing a pair of scrimmages, we’re hooked.

We can’t wait for the home opener on Sept. 29 and the new season. For us, the action on the ice will only be part of the fun.

Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at eknopsnyder@tribdem.com.

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