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Billet Feature: Egger Family

Opening their homes and personal lives to Hurricanes players, billet families play an important role in our organization. A second family to the players, a support system for them and their families – billets are crucial to the success of major junior hockey. So, each week we’d like to introduce you to our amazing billets.

Fans, meet the Egger’s!

Billet mom Irene and billet dad, Ralph have been billets for 13 years. They also have a mini-dachshund named Sammy, and a daughter, Jess, who no longer lives at home. Irene says “she gave up her bedroom several years ago so Irene could ‘mother’ another hockey player! [However] she is a ‘frequent flyer’ at the dinner table and spends a lot of time getting to know the boys and being a ‘big sister.’”

Their most recent billets were Dino Kambeitz and Jett Jones. Usually, the Eggers are home to two players more similar in age so Irene “was concerned at first because of the two-year age difference and Jett being a first-year player” however, she says her concerns were unfounded because “Dino said he remembered what it was like being a rookie and being away from home that first year and consequently was very good to Jett and a great mentor to him.”

In their 13-year tenure as billets, they have been home to Derek Ryckman, Spencer Galbraith, Graham Hood, Corbin Boes, Seth Swenson, Nick Walters, Justin Gutierrez, Zane Franklin, Brad Morrison, Jake Leschyshyn, and Nick Henry. They were also briefly home to Jack Flaman and Matt Stanley, as well as numerous players when they first arrive for training camp.

So, how did this ongoing 13-year journey of billeting begin? “When Jess was in high school, she went on a three-month exchange to Germany and was billeted with a family. Jim Stewart, who was the education liaison for the Hurricanes, was a counsellor at her school and suggested to us that with our experience of having Jess being billeted far from home that we’d appreciate what was involved in welcoming these boys into our family and home.” He was right.

Over the past 13 years Ralph, Irene, and Jess have created traditions, shared many memories, and stayed in touch with their billets. They mark everyone’s height on a closet door, “the guys loving comparing their height to previous billets’ heights,” says Irene. Birthdays are celebrated at The Keg or Firestone, if the team is in town then pumpkins are carved at Halloween and gingerbread houses are built at Christmas time. The Christmas season starts with a family Christmas card picture with Ralph, Irene, Jess, and the billets – a card sent to 75 friends and relatives, including the players’ families and the Hurricanes office (a card we always enjoy receiving).

Christmas family photo with Brad
Christmas family photo with Brad

Christmas family photo with Nick and Jake
Christmas family photo with Nick and Jake

Christmas family photo with Dino and Jett
Christmas family photo with Dino and Jett

Jess, Jett, and Dino with their gingerbread houses
Jess, Jett, and Dino with their gingerbread houses

 

Since their first billet, the Egger’s have tried to buy their billet jerseys at the yearend auction, “of the 13 fellows who have lived with us we’ve managed to buy all but two of their jerseys. Well, one isn’t exactly a jersey, Corbin was traded in January so we couldn’t get his jersey but we got the name bar off his jersey!”

Nick Walters was acquired from Brandon in November 2013 joining the Hurricanes at a tumultuous time for the organization and because of that he and Irene have a special bond, “the year he lived with us was one of the years the Hurricanes had a very bad year. I spent many hours that year sitting with Nick, especially after games, talking with him, and sometimes just sitting with him. It was a roller-coaster year and for me emotionally exhausting, but through it all Nick and I became very close. He’s gone on to play in South Dakota, Denmark, and is playing his third year in Germany now, and we are still very close. Every couple of months we’ll facetime – long, long, facetime visits.”

The relationships built between players and their billet families are everlasting. The Egger’s hear from their former billets on Mother’s Day as well as their birthdays. Irene is in contact with most former billets throughout the year and will have facetime visits with some of them periodically. When Graham Hood started his own business in Vancouver a few years ago he asked Irene to look after his bookkeeping stating, “I don’t trust anyone else.” Irene’s response? “How could I say no to that?!” Derek Ryckman had a baby girl two years ago and the Egger’s call her their “billet grandbaby,” they normally travel to Red Deer to celebrate her birthday, except for this year. Derek got married this year and due to COVID, the Egger’s attended the wedding “virtually”. They were also supposed to go to Justin Gutierrez’s wedding in Alaska, a wedding that is now slated for 2021. However, they visited Justin and his family in Alaska three years ago, a fun trip for all.

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Gutierrez and Egger families

Justin Gutierrez, Irene, Ralph, and Jess in Alaska
Justin Gutierrez, Irene, Ralph, and Jess in Alaska

 

Read on to hear some fun stories from the Egger’s!

What is your favourite memory with a billet?

Over the years we’ve had bobbleheads made for many of our billets for Christmas gifts. Several fellows didn’t come to us until later in the season, so alas, no bobble-heads for them. The boys always LOVE these bobbleheads of themselves. Last season we had quite a time with the sculptor of Jett’s and Dino’s bobble-heads though. He got Jett’s “head” sculpted to perfection on the first try, but Dino has a lot of hair and “big” hair, I had to send Dino’s back three times with the comment “the hair has to be BIGGER!”

Billet-Feature-Egger-Family1
Jett and his bobblehead

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Dino and his bobblehead

 

Brad had quite a scoring run in playoffs and his playoff superstitions, although serious to him, were quite amusing to us. Jake Elmer picked him up each morning for check-in and they had to drive the same route, go through the same Timmy’s and order the same thing each day. But the most memorable sight was seeing him walk down the driveway each morning in Ralph’s orange Crocs and my brown terry robe!  Hey – you don’t mess with playoff superstitions.

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Nick Henry trying Japanese food for the first time

The year we had Jake and Nick was memorable food-wise. Nick was a “meat and potatoes” guy and hadn’t tried a lot of different food types. Jake, on the other hand, enjoyed and was familiar with a wide variety of foods. We go to Osho’s for dinner every New Year’s Eve and Nick tried his first sushi. We took a video and sent it to his mother, turns out he really enjoys sushi! Another first was escargot at The Keg for Ralph’s birthday. Another video to his mother – but this time not much enjoyment in the taste!

Corbin was a dog lover and loved our dog Sammy. One of the best memories of him is getting up from the dinner table and basically folding himself down onto the kitchen floor with Sammy – and staying there for a good while! Corbin was a goalie, and a big guy – a lot of “goalie” limbs to walk around.

With our first billet, Derek Ryckman we were told to integrate him into family chores. We told him he was to wash dishes one night a week, to which he readily agreed. When his turn came up, he looked around the kitchen and asked where the dishwasher was. We don’t have one – he was the dishwasher.  Well, the poor guy didn’t know how to wash dishes, so Jess showed him. We left him to it for a few minutes and came back into the kitchen to see Derek “bopping” at the sink, big headphones on, singing away, the sink filled to overflowing with water. Needless to say, that was the last time we had him “wash” the dishes.

Billet-Feature-Egger-Family4
Christmas “family” photos with Adam Henry, Jamal Watson, Dan Johnston, Graham Hood, Jaimen Yakubowski, and Brady Ramsay

One evening in December, the year Graham Hood lived with us, a bunch of the guys came over to hang out in the family room, which was decorated with a Christmas tree and LOTS of decorations, as is my custom. The guys decided they wanted to “dress up” and pose for Christmas pictures so they went to the second-hand store and bought pants, sweater vests, sweaters, and even eyeglasses. What followed was a full-on photoshoot!  Photos of Graham being the “Dad” and reading Christmas stories to the “boys”, photos goofing around with the Christmas décor, and it went on and on and on. So much fun!

We had some real cold spells the winter that Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry lived with us and the battery in Jake’s car died. I offered to call AMA to come jumpstart the car, but they wanted to do it themselves. After about 45 minutes I went out to see how they were doing, and Nick had backed his truck to where the jumper cables could reach from his truck to Jake’s car.

Nick and Jake boosting Jake's car
Nick and Jake boosting Jake’s car

The hoods were open, cables attached from Nick’s motor leading to Jake’s car but not yet attached. Jake had his phone on a YouTube video on battery jumping and Nick had his Dad on the phone. They were out there about an hour and a half in the freezing weather, getting dark, but they figured it out themselves, and they were so proud!  Several days later it happened again and Jake decided he needed a new battery, so again they got a YouTube video, this time on removing and replacing a battery. Again, I offered to call AMA but they wanted to do it themselves. Took a couple of hours and several trips to Canadian Tire because they bought the wrong kind of battery the first time, but eventually, they did it.  Again, so proud of what they’d done themselves.  They decided that in addition to hockey they could add “experienced auto mechanics” to their resumes.

Brad invited Calen Addison over for dinner one evening when we were having potstickers. Brad LOVED potstickers so usually we made dozens of them and that evening, for some reason, it turned into a “potsticker eating contest” between Brad and Calen. Brad definitely blew Calen out of the water though by consuming 50 potstickers to Calen’s 30! So, whenever we have potstickers, I send Brad photos and this past summer, several times I received photo texts from Calen and Brad when they were having potstickers at their homes!

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

One of the most exciting things for the boys here at Christmas is the advent tree that we have. They start opening doors on December 1 and open one every day until they leave for home for the Christmas break. The “elves” are very generous with gift cards, scratch tickets, and various treasures, every year the boys love opening the doors and finding their treasure for the day! We have done this since Jess was little and when we started to billet, we just added a second treasure to the day’s treasure box. When Justin lived here, he thought it was the greatest thing and was telling the guys on the team that he got a present every day in December. They were shocked when he went to the rink one day and when asked what gift he’d gotten that day he answered “a mini iPad!” Uh no, the “elves” aren’t that generous!! Funny guy!

Is there a favourite meal in your household?

Steak is definitely king for both boys! Ralph makes an amazing lasagna, and as long as he omits the spinach (per Dino) it’s a favourite also! There are always a few items that hockey boys, ALL hockey boys, usually don’t like: mushrooms, tomatoes, and often onions.

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

Welch’s fruit snacks, Gatorade, different kinds of potato chips, LOTS of granola bars, and for road trips beef jerky and Goldfish.

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

Irene cooks breakfast for Dino every morning then he’s off to a workout or a community event or the rink. Jett was in school last season so he’d be up and out the door early, just in time to catch his ride with Bryan. He graduated in June, so I’m sure he’ll be having breakfast this year with Dino. The boys are usually home between 4:00 and 5:00PM and HUNGRY, so they’ll grab a snack and go to their rooms or the family room until dinner, which is at 5:30. Dino discovered Kraft Dinner (he’d never had it before!) and he loved having a box of that for a snack – one hour before dinner! Evenings, if they’re not out with the other guys or at a community event, they’re either in their own rooms or hanging together in the family room watching, what else, HOCKEY!

What does a game day look like in your home?

 Game days are quiet and relaxed around our house. Irene cooks breakfast for the boys before they’re off to the rink for check-in and video. Most game days they pick up Booster Juice for their lunch and they’re home by 11:30/12:00. Then they rest/relax/sleep until their pre-game dinner at 4:00. We keep the house very quiet while they’re resting. Pre-game dinner has ALWAYS, for all our billeting years and all the different fellows we’ve had, been chicken and either pasta or sometimes rice! They have pre-game dinner at 4:00, shower and they’re out the door to the game.

Do you keep in touch with any former billets?

Seth Swenson was at Guelph University last year and came to Lethbridge to play in the U Cup tournament.  His parents came up from Colorado so we got to spend time with them and Seth.

Last year, we took a “detour” on our return trip from Manitoba and stopped in Portage la Prairie and had dinner with Nick Henry and his family. Then on to Saskatoon where we had dinner with

Corbin Boes (who just happened to be home for a wedding) and his family. Later that evening we had drinks with Graham Hood’s parents. Jake Leschyshyn was still in Chicago in the Calder Cup playoffs, but we had breakfast with his parents and sister the next morning.

Irene and Ralph at Dinner with Corbin Boes
Irene and Ralph at Dinner with Corbin Boes

The summer before we’d been in Saskatoon again and had dinner at Corbin Boes’ parents, breakfast with Graham Hood at his parents’ house then on to Edmonton where we had dinner with Nick Walters and his family, and the next morning breakfast with Spencer Galbraith. On our way home we stopped in Red Deer and had lunch with Derek Ryckman. Whew! Lots of food and lots of visiting!

Visiting Brad in LA
Visiting Brad in Los Angeles

Two years ago, the three of us flew to California to see Brad Morrison play hockey and spent American Thanksgiving weekend with both his parents (and Black Friday shopping, of course).

Visiting Brad in LA where the family watched him score his first AHL goal
Visiting Brad in LA where the family watched him score his first AHL goal

Irene, Nick, and Jess in Rapid City, South Dakota
Irene, Nick, and Jess in Rapid City, South Dakota

Nick Walters plays hockey in Germany but three or four years ago when he was playing in South Dakota his mother, Jess, and I went on a weekend road trip to see him play.

This summer we’ve not travelled because of COVID but Jess did stop on her way to Vancouver, in Kelowna, to have lunch with Brad Morrison.

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

We have a quote on the wall in our dining room that reads, “The fondest memories are made when gathered around the table.” We’ve spent many hours over the years gathered around the table, making fabulous memories with not just our billets but many other players on the team. Friendships are made with their families from around the country and in our case the U.S. That is the greatest reward for becoming a billet. That, and knowing that you’ve helped a young man, who is far from home and his family and friends, step into his own. When the boys are lonely or struggling or having a great day, it’s the billet parents who are boots on the ground celebrating with them or helping them through. We’ve had a few “trying moments” over the years, but it hasn’t stopped us from taking in a new player when the season starts. It is an emotional venture and it’s very hard to have them leave at the end of the season or at the end of their WHL career, but it is so rewarding to know that you have had the privilege of helping them become responsible caring young men.

Billeting a hockey player is like having a child of your own.  We don’t think of the boys as “billets”, they are our sons and part of our family, both present and past players. As the parent of any teenager, you give advice, laughter, shelter, an ‘ear’, a shoulder, joy at a win, empathy at a loss, and the occasional $$! But what you get back is immeasurable.

Very often one of the questions I’m asked when I mention to people that we billet Hurricanes players is if we can “make anything” doing that.  I think of that quote on my dining room wall and with a smile I answer “more than you can possibly imagine”!

Anything else you’d like to share?

Billeting isn’t all fun and games though. When a player gets hurt and has to miss games it’s hard on both them and the billets. It’s very hard to see your player with a broken this, or a torn that and wait out the physical and emotional healing process. Justin Gutierrez was 20 the year he lived with us and in his final WHL year when he got a concussion in January. Before the concussion he had been a real character – always laughing, pulling pranks and very involved with the rest of the guys on the team. It broke my heart to watch him wade through days and weeks of pain, nausea, fatigue and dizziness. It was so, so hard to see the emotional downward spiral. He didn’t play another game that season. We have seen Justin since, and I’m so happy to say that the “old” Justin is back – but it was a long and painful road for him to get there.

Through billeting I’ve become a proud “hockey Mom”.  I had the neighbour of my parents express surprise when, in conversation, he found out we billet junior hockey players. He said “you take in these teenage boys into your home and family for the whole hockey season?” when I said yes, he was quiet for a bit then he said “wow, you have gained my utmost respect for doing that”.  That was a proud moment for me.

Irene Ryckman, Irene, and Jess
Irene Ryckman, Irene, and Jess

Nick, Irene, Jess, and Jamal Watson at lunch in the summer
Nick, Irene, Jess, and Jamal Watson

Brad's last day in Lethbridge
Ralph, Irene, and Jess with Brad on his last day in Lethbridge

Macoy Erkamps, Jess, and Graham Hood in Vancouver
Macoy Erkamps, Jess, and Graham Hood in Vancouver
Ralph and Irene Egger
Ralph and Irene Egger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Photos provided by Irene and Jess Egger.

 

 

 

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