On Friday night, a hard-fought game draws to a close for the Omaha Lancers. Unfortunately for the Lancers their performance in the arena was colder than the frigid, gusty winds that were blowing outside the venue. It was one of those nights where nothing could go right, one of the Lancer’s top performers (Austin Alger) was out after experiencing a brief illness earlier in the week. The Fargo Force jumped on the Lancers early, scoring a quick 3 goals.
The night plodded on without much excitement until about 5 minutes left to go in the game when Filip Rydstrom, a hard-hitting Swede, came to blows with one of the Force players which sent the arena into a wild frenzy. The fight was not necessarily due to the score but rather a cauldron of discontent that had been simmering all season long. It is like this in hockey where two combatants will finally decide to settle their differences on the ice away from the puck. The brief scrap ended with a bloodied nose on the Force player and early shower for Rydstrom.
Fighting has gradually faded away from the game as players are more focused on building skills that will enable them to have a more productive career. Gone are the days where the old joke “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out” was more a truism than a comment made in jest. While the fight was able to provide some amusement to the crowd, getting the best of the opponent in a pugilistic contest made no difference in the final score as the Lancers were downed 5-0.
With the game over, and no celebration be had, the fans quickly filed from the arena and the Zamboni quickly took the ice to prepare it for the further activities of the weekend. Within 15 minutes of the final whistle the arena lights start to shut down as the arena staff hope to make an early exit.
Outside of a few stragglers nursing their beers, the only people who remain are the billet families, press, and team staffers. This will not be an early night for the players though as there are a laundry list of obligations for a player to fulfill. Tonight, the players must change quickly to attend the post-game party at the Ice House, a full-service bar located off Maple Street. Even though they are going to the bar, there will be no players drinking tonight as there are no Lancers over the age of 20. This is one of the many rules that players must adhere to, with the penalties being severe. The players are also required to dress up for their public appearances, most often in suits and ties, as is the case this night.
It is already 10:15 p.m. before the final player arrives at the bar for the post game party. The purpose of the festivities is to allow the fans a good opportunity to mingle with the players. Tonight, the mood is subdued and the crowd small. Half of the people in the bar are regulars with little to no interest in the players who have arrived, the other half is almost exclusively made up of the players themselves and the billet families. A few of the players mill around speaking to a few of the billet families but for the most part, they are consumed with devouring the mountains of pizza and beer pitchers filled with water that the waitress brings to the table two at a time.
Unsurprisingly, there is an NHL hockey game on the big screen but nobody pays it much mind. Austin Alger, one of the few returning players from last year’s squad appears to doze off for a minute in one of the booths as he his eating with his billet family. Alger is still shaking off the illness from a couple of days ago, but just because he did not play does not mean his usual responsibilities end.
The players are out late, and they have a big day the next day. The thing about being a Lancer is you always have something to do, it is part of the deal. One thing that people sometimes miss when watching the Lancers is the fact that the players, although they play like professionals, and put forth professional effort, they still are minors. In fact, most of the Lancer players cannot even purchase a lottery ticket. Ranging in age from 16 to 20 the players are referred to the club, and the league, as “Student-Athletes”.
Per Lancer policy, players are required to either be enrolled in high school or college coursework, or they can opt to work a part time job instead. With the scheduling demands faced by Lancers players most opt to take college courses online to fulfill this requirement. In a typical year, most players will have already have signed a national letter of intent with a NCAA hockey program. This status allows them to have access to academic advisers and regular contact with their future college coach.
While they are with the Lancers the player’s development remains 100% guided by the player themselves in conjunction with the Lancer coaches. With the restrictions on NCAA players in regards to travel time, practice time, and academic requirements, USHL teams like the Lancers provide an opportunity for players to get more time on the ice to develop their game. The USHL also provides the players a few extra years to gain the physical size, speed, and skill required to be physically competitive with their future NCAA college opponents.
With all the responsibilities required of them, and their young age, the Lancers rely on a group of billet families to provide lodging, support, and a nurturing home environment to the players. As most of the players are away from home for the first time, the billets serve as surrogate parents to the players. Billeting is a common thing for junior hockey in the U.S. and Canada. Due to their young age it is not realistic to have the players stay in apartments or hotels, so the billet parents allow Junior hockey to exist in its current form. The term billet comes from the French word that refers to the former custom of families in Europe being required to house a soldier or small group of soldiers during times of conflict.
The Omaha Lancers have about 15 families that house from a single player up to three players during the season. The number of players housed per family depends a lot on the desires of the players and the families. Some players specifically request to be hosted by a family who able to have more than one player at a time, while others prefer to be the only player hosted by a family.
Becoming a billet family requires a lot of effort on the part of the family as well as the Lancer organization. The families are meticulously interviewed and verified via background checks. The Lancer organization will also do home visits to make sure the applicants will provide a nurturing and safe environment for the player.
Terri Phillips, Director of Business & Game Night Operations, works to match families with players so each party will have a rewarding experience. The matchmaking begins with a three-page survey of both prospective billet families and the players. Much effort is taken to avoid obvious issues that could cause conflict, such as a player whose hobbies include deer hunting would probably not be placed with a family of vegetarians. Whether the player likes pets or not is also another major consideration in regards to family placement.
One would wonder how things such as house rules and discipline would be approached in these situations. As the billet families are bringing in young men, who play a sport that relies heavily on aggression, one would think that there could be disciplinary issues that would come up from time to time. By and large this is not really the case. Due to the Lancers’ own strict code of conduct the players rarely have an opportunity to stray into the territory of running afoul of any house rules. The players have set curfews, strict prohibitions against drinking, and they must maintain their school and work performance. These rules and requirements provide little opportunity for the players to act inappropriately or make bad decisions.
Austin Alger’s billet family, Leigh and Grant Brassette, are in their second year as a billet family. Austin has been their designated player for both of those years. The Brassettes became interested in being a billet family after they had regularly attended games for the last 4 years. Leigh came from a hockey family and her husband Grant is a high school teacher and coach. In their 30’s, with no children of their own, the Brassettes have welcomed Austin as part of their family almost becoming a de facto foster son. As with any blended living situation there is a balance that needs to be met as far as parenting goes. Leigh considers herself Austin’s billet mother as she is a nurturing type, whereas Grant considers himself as more of “the cool uncle” figure rather than a father figure. This is a dynamic that seems to work well in this family.
As with any new situation there was a period of adjustment when Austin came to Omaha. After a championship run in Michigan high school hockey, and a reign as Mr. Hockey, Austin came to Omaha to join the Lancers. By his nature, Austin is very quiet and introspective, while the Brassettes are boisterous and fun loving. This combination took some adjustment at first as Austin barely spoke during his first week with the Brassettes. However, after the initial adjustment period the new family began to gel quickly.
Austin and the Brassettes do normal things that any family would do, they go bowling, watch the Huskers, play with the dogs, and just talk about life. Interestingly, not much hockey is watched in the house. The home situation is able to provide a break from the rigors of elite level hockey. When there is an activity with the Brassette’s extended family Austin goes too. There is little distinction between Austin and the Brassettes when it comes to family involvement.
This family involvement also extends to other players on the Lancers. There are always players coming and going from the Brassette home. Visits occur so often that Leigh makes sure to stock the favorite food and drink items for each player who often pops by. Sometimes keeping the pantry well stocked requires multiple trips to Costco in a single day to replenish the supply of drinks, snacks, and perhaps the favorite food item of the Lancers players, dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets. With the obvious increase of expenditures for a billet family house and feed a player, they are granted a stipend by the Lancers to help offset the increased costs.
While making sure the players are fed is a big part of being a billet family, the emotional support is probably the most important thing that the billet families provide. After a long night on Friday, Austin slept in late and was able to wake up to a hot breakfast and some time watching the Husker game with the Brassettes.
Even though this is not a game day, Austin’s schedule is still wall to wall. After eating breakfast and watching the Husker game Austin sits in for an interview for this article then grabs a quick snack and heads off to practice. Although practice starts at 5:45 p.m. Austin leaves two hours early to make sure that he has an opportunity to put on his gear and be properly warmed up.
No matter what level the team, time on the ice is always at a premium. Players are expected to be stretched and warmed up before the coaches hit the ice. Not a minute is wasted and players quickly move from drill to drill. The coaches work seamlessly together each directing a particular facet of the day’s practice. The team quickly moves from stick drills to game simulations. For about 90 minutes the team charges up and down the ice taking only brief breaks for whiteboard coaching instruction.
After practice it is time to head home. It is chili night at the Brassette’s and several of the players will be there. Unlike last night there will be no going out as curfew will be early. Much like a person on parole players are contacted by phone to verify they are following the rules. Billet families are required to have a home phone and are periodically contacted by a representative from the team for curfew check. One such occurrence was on New Year’s Eve when there was a set curfew. A few strokes past midnight the Brassette home phone rang with a coach on the line looking for Austin. So strict are the coaches that the coach insisted on speaking to Austin himself rather than Grant who had happened to be the one to answer the call.
After dinner, the players go home where most will take some time to skype with their girlfriends or families. With players having most their relatives and loved ones out of town the billet families step in to provide emotional support when needed. Austin and his older brother were inseparable growing up and will be reunited when Austin goes to college next year at Miami of Ohio. Austin fills the void by concentrating on improving his game though practice, reviewing game film on his computer, and even doing stick drills around the house. Austin has also become close to his teammates and finds himself as a leader and big brother figure.
Austin is the embodiment of the serious hockey player. He hopes to eventually make it to the NHL, but is not shirking his responsibilities as a student and representative of the Lancers. As one of the few returning players, Austin has taken it upon himself to be a leader of the team, albeit a quiet one. Austin hardly ever fights on the ice and is not an in your face “rah rah” type of leader. Austin quietly leads by example.
Talking with Austin it is easy to forget that he is only 19 years old. Being a Lancer requires such a high level of maturity and dedication, that by and large the players are wise beyond their years. When asked if fans have ever taken the heckling a bit too far (forgetting the reality that the players are still youthful amateurs) Austin stated that it has been extremely rare and generally any heckling dished out has almost always been in good fun.
One thing that does happen with Lancers players is that complete strangers will take a very deep interest in the player as a person. Playing junior hockey is much like being in a metaphorical fish bowl. Leigh stated that since she became a billet parent she has gotten a lot of Facebook requests from people she has never met. Due to this occurrence, the family is extremely deliberate about what they share on Facebook and who they share it with. Sometimes fans will approach the family for the inside scoop on trades, line-ups, etc. The family takes it in stride mainly because they do not actually have that much inside knowledge themselves.
During the last game that Austin missed several fans came up to the Brassettes to find out why Austin was scratched. Probably the most unsung duty of the billet family is keeping the celebrity of being a Lancer from becoming too much to deal with. The Lancer’s fans love their players, and for good reason, but one lesson time with the Lancers can teach is how not to get consumed by the celebrity or let it be a distraction from the overall goals.
Lessons learned will serve the players well as a select few will make it to the NHL, more will get to play professional hockey in the minor leagues or abroad, and most will get to play in college and will be subject to more and more attention from fans.
Sunday will begin much like Saturday morning with a healthy breakfast prepared by Grant. Relaxation time and fueling up will be of paramount importance today as the players have had to expend a lot of energy over the weekend. Like yesterday it will be an early departure for Austin as the game starts at 5 but there is strategy to go over, visits to the trainer, equipment to put on, and pre-game warmups to go through. Austin will get to play today and the Brassettes will be in the stands, pulling for their him. When Austin’s time with the Lancers is done, and he heads to Miami of Ohio, the relationship between the Brassettes and Alger will not end. Interestingly, Austin will be a regular visitor with his RedHawks hockey team as they visit Omaha on a yearly basis to face off against the UNO Mavericks. Austin has made sure the Brassettes have already been provided the appropriate Miami gear to wear when they attend the games to cheer him and his brother on.
The fans start to file in. Just like the Brassettes, the other billet families find their usual seats. The fans hope for a better result than the last game. The lights start to fade and a replay of Friday night’s fight plays on the two big screens which hang at opposite ends of the ice. The crowd cheers with anticipation of more hard hitting action. The fans rise as the hype video plays and the players can be seen exiting the locker room. Finally, after a few minutes of blaring heavy metal, Glen Frey’s “The Heat is On” blasts from the speakers as the Lancers take the ice. The crowd chants and cheers for their beloved Lancers. They are ready for the action to start. After the National Anthem the players crowd the bench waiting getting a last few words of instruction from the coaching staff.
The players, families, staff, this journalist, and some of the fans know the practically non-stop weekend that players endured to get to this game. There will be many more weekends like this as the season wears on, just as there have been for the last 31 years of the Lancers organization.
The players themselves will have several more years of packed hockey weekends, and a few lucky ones will have decades of them. But this weekend is over. The players take their positions, the fans hold their breath, the referees check that everybody is ready. The spotlight shines on center ice and the puck drops.