Billet Feature: Aiken Family

Billet families play an important role in the lives of Hurricanes players. Local families open up their homes and personal lives to our players each season and partake in a vast array of festivities throughout the year. Billet families work hard to ensure that our players integrate into the community smoothly and comfortably while reducing the stress of moving to a new city and being away from their families. This translates into hard work, dedication, and success on the ice, both at games and at practices.

Playing an important role in our organization, we’ve been highlighting our incredible billet families every week since September and today we reach our final billet family.

Fans, meet Stew Aiken!

Stew is our longest serving billet family, he began billeting in the summer of 1992. At the time, Stew’s sons, Tyler was just five years old and Ryan was a newborn. Today, both boys live on their own and Stew is at home with his partner, Juanita.

Stew, Juanita, Chase Pauls, Oliver Okuliar

Tyler Aiken, Derek Parker, Ryan Aiken

This past season Stew billeted Oliver Okuliar, prior to that – well, the list is long. “It’s a long list…Ivan Vologjaninov, Ryan Johnston, Ryan Hoople, Luc Theoret, Jason McLean, Marcus Wright, Derek Parker, Joel Martin, Clay Plume, Josh Saywell, Chase Henitiuk, RJ LaRochelle, Jesse Dudas, Mike Wuchterl, Mitch McColm, Luke Wiens, Ben Wright, Neil Tarnasky, Jaimen Yakubowski, Giorgio Estephan, Logan Flodell, Jackson Shepard, Oliver Okuliar….my apologies if I have missed anybody!!” Stew also billet numerous players throughout the years for training camp.

Jason McLean and Charlie Mattersdorfer with Ryan for show and tell

Stew says life now for billets is a little different at his house than what they used to be. “Today’s players have a much quieter life in the house than years gone by. In the early years, they were brought to school for show and tell, they attended a lot of my boys’ hockey practices and were always involved in the family activities. By today’s standards (empty nester) they have the run of the basement and their time is spent watching TV with us or just having downtime by themselves in front of their Xbox.” Stew also recalls that when his sons were younger, they were tasked with delivering notes to girls at the ENMAX Centre because the players were too shy to approach them themselves.

Ivan and Andre with Ryan

Stew got into billeting because his neighbour was Alf Gurr. Gurr was instrumental in bringing junior hockey back to Lethbridge after the Broncos moved to Swift Current. In fact, it was Gurr’s idea to purchase a team as a community. Gurr and his brother Joe Feller, approached City Manager, Bob Bartlett in 1986 with their community ownership idea. Bartlett, who is now a senior scout for the Hurricanes, went to bat with City Council and on March 28th, 1986 the Lethbridge Hurricanes were granted a WHL team. The Calgary Wranglers was purchased and moved to Lethbridge starting the 1987-1988 season as the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Stew says, “The Hurricanes, in the summer of 1992, had a young man from Kiev that they were bringing in early to climatize to Canada and to help with getting his English up to par for the coming season. After a couple of months with Ivan [Vologjaninov] in our house, we were hooked!” He also acknowledges he thought it would be great for his sons and an opportunity to show the kids the sacrifices, effort, and dedication it takes to chase your dreams of playing in the NHL. How they had school first, and then hockey, how they had to juggle all of that and succeed in both school and hockey.”

When asked if he keeps in touch with former billets, Stew is thankful for the growth and development of technology, especially social media platforms. “Yes, with Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social media it is fairly easy to keep tabs on them. I absolutely love going through each of their stats from the night before games, sending them congratulating texts. I’ve also been fortunate to attend weddings, meet their young children, and follow them as they embark on the different chapters in their lives.”

And how about with their families? “This is something that is so special and was truly unexpected. Each year is different based on the player in your house, but this part of billeting is truly amazing. Not only do you meet the parents and siblings, but you also have an opportunity to meet grandparents too. It is amazing how you become part of their extended families. With the young 16-year-old parents, you sometimes spoke each night to update them on how the day went or how he was adjusting to life in the WHL. It becomes a special bond you create, that I know extends a lifetime.” In fact, one of Stew’s fondest memories through his 28-year billeting experience comes from one of his youngest billets. “Every parent, player can relate to. I have had many different aged young men in my house over the years, but having a new 16-year-old leaving home for the first time can be very troubling for both parent and player. I believe we as dads are extremely proud of our sons’ accomplishments and our relationships are different than mothers…with that in mind. I had a new player that was coming to stay with us after camp broke. His parents and I met at the house to help him move in. His mother was quite emotional throughout the time in the house and there were several attempts to leave, which were quickly dashed at the door because she couldn’t leave yet. After several attempts they were successful in leaving, only to return 20-minutes later after driving around the city. More tears and hugs followed!” A sweet story, and one we are sure many moms can relate to.

Stew wanted to share that, “because of my long tenure, I have been fortunate to have been through the best years with winning the WHL, and been part of rock bottom winning only a handful of games. Each hockey year brings the same excitement and optimism for our city and hockey club, with everything happening.” The hockey season is a time we all look forward to, so we know this year has been particularly hard for many. We want to take this time to thank our fans for your amazing support throughout the years. We extend a very special thank you to all our billet families who have opened their homes to our players over the years, and to all billets around the world, it’s not an easy task to take on but as we hear time and again, it’s a more rewarding experience than what anyone could possibly imagine.

Read on to read more about billeting with Stew Aiken!

Do you have any traditions, fun facts, celebrations, etc. with your billet?

Juanita, Stew, Rylan Thiessen, and Oliver Okuliar golfing

We always make them part of our family activities. Each year we try to get them out golfing with us in the fall prior to the season getting going. It’s always fun to get them away from the game and have them relax playing another one of their passions. We always have birthday celebrations complete with a special gift should the big day fall while they are playing here in Lethbridge. Over the years when playoffs come around, prior to game one we visit their favourite steak house for a huge steak. This is also where the Playoff Socks were introduced…this became a lot of fun!

Is there a favourite meal in your household?

Steak is always the favourite!  Followed closely by anything chicken.

Giorgio Estephan with Stew

Is there anything you have to keep stocked in the pantry that you normally wouldn’t?

Pending on the player, of course, I have to stock all kinds of cereals, energy bars…buy apple and orange juice by the case!

Most are pretty good with nutrition, but occasionally would have to stock some junk food, and a boatload of cookies!! (We’re looking at you, Giorgio!)

What does a regular day look like in your home during the season?

Depending on the player, breakfast can be cereal, eggs, or a quick bagel and energy bar as they run out the door. Most will take advantage of a nap as soon as they are home from the rink in the afternoon. So, supper is well on the way each day when they wake up from their nap. Each supper is planned prior, based on what they have upcoming for games and what they need for nutrition. We try to include each billet in the menu building process for the week, throwing ideas at them.

After supper it’s usually R&R time with the Xbox humming or the TV on watching their favourite show.

What does a game day look like in your home?

Depending on the player, the morning starts off with breakfast or scrambling for their clothes because their ride is already here. Morning skate would be followed by a pregame nap which usually ends around 3:30pm. During my years in the car business, I would arrange to be home around 2:30 to cook pregame and have it plated and ready when their feet hit the floor at 3:30pm. We always have some sort of hockey chat during pregame, I would head back to work and they headed off to shower and dress.

What would you say to someone thinking of becoming a billet?

Call me!! It is an amazing part we play for the Hurricanes and the development of a young man. It’s something you have to have both feet in, you have to be committed to bringing in someone, a total stranger, someone that may be from a totally different environment or culture. Together they become part of your family and you theirs, the rewards are off the charts!!

Ryan and Jason McLean

Bryce Salvador and Ryan

Jason McLean, Bart Rushmer, and Eric Godard at Ruckers for Ryan’s birthday

Ryan wearing Ryan Hoople’s helmet from the 1997 Memorial Cup run


*Photos provided by Stew and Ryan Aiken

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