Sunday, 11 February 2018

Home Away From Home: A Billet's Story

If you're a junior hockey fan, you could sit and listen to Stew Aiken's billet stories for hours.

He has seen everything over the last 26 years. It all started with his neighbour Alf Gurr, the man who spawned the idea of Lethbridge buying a WHL team after losing the Broncos to Swift Current.

Gurr had asked Aiken to billet out a European player during a summer, and Aiken obliged. But that short visit from a young hockey player was enough to get him hooked on the idea.

"When I first got going, I wanted to show my kids (who were 1 and 5 at the time) how hard you have to work to be successful, how you had to sacrifice so much and how you had to keep your foot on the gas," Aiken told Canes This Week.

Players came and went, but they continued to have a strong impact on the family's lives. He had a run of goaltenders including Ryan Hoople, Jason McLean and Joel Martin. Aiken also billeted friend of the show Mike Wuchterl and tough guy Derek Parker.

"He was so humble though," Aiken reflects fondly of the 6'2", 215-pound forward. "Where most people think of him as this lunatic, basically for lack of better word. But he was the nicest kid, the most polite kid. My kids still talk to him, if not every month, every other month."

The most-recent long-term visitor to the Aiken residence was Giorgio Estephan. The now 21-year-old was there from the very beginning as a 15-year-old, and Aiken gets a kick out of a story that Giorgio's mom even shares.

"She went through probably half a box of Kleenex leaving, she was just so emotional and Giorgio was emotional," Aiken recalled. "They circled Lethbridge before they left to go back to Edmonton and came back to the house and rang the door bell and asked 'hey do you guys wanna go out for supper?' Because his mom wasn't ready to give him up yet."

Aiken admits Estephan had a tough start to his WHL career, as a young player used to being the star but being relegated to a lesser role. It's a story he admits he's had to mentally coach a few players on as they've made their way up through the system.

"It's a tough go when you're sitting in a suit watching your team play and having to go through the rigamarole of WHL Monday through Sunday with practice, school and everything else," Aiken said. "It wears you down."

When Estephan was traded to Swift Current, it was a day that Aiken calls a difficult one for any billet.

"I am missing the first period of a game on a Tuesday night, saying my goodbyes to my kid and even while doing that, I'm getting his room ready because I know I've got the other kid coming in that night," Aiken said. "You don't really have time to mourn at all and that's probably the toughest on a billet."

Then there are the diets. And Aiken encountered something new when goaltender Logan Flodell moved in.

"First words out of his mouth were "Stew, I'm lactose-intolerant,"" he laughed. "I've never had a kid like that where all my cheese sauces, all my cooking that I've done over the years is all out the window."

The billeting veteran loves what he does, and says it's important to treat the players like family, enforcing the rules and dealing with the different personalities.

"When you've been doing it for as long as I have, you truly don't mesh with every personality and every kid," Aiken laughs again. "So, some seasons are longer than others, but you manage to get through it."

But those seem to be few and far between. The highlights for him have nothing to do with the ice.

"Getting the invite to the wedding, them just giving you a call out fo the blue or stopping in or that type of thing," Aiken smiles. "Like I mentioned Derek Parker, we'll go a couple of summers and I won't see him but he'll pop in and find me at work or wherever. Those are the things where you make life-long relationships."

That's one of the benefits of being a billet. Aiken also has a piece of advice for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps.

"Get into it for the right reasons. There's been billets that have come and go where they think financially, it's beneficial for them but unfortunately they haven't thought it through well because these are young teenagers and the last reason you're getting involved in billeting is for the money."

Get it done right, and the memories will last a lifetime.

"They become part of your family, they're one of your kids," Aiken concluded. "You live and breathe their successes, you see them develop into amazing adults."

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