Billet Feature: Stringer Family

A special write-up today in our billet family features as we talk with Kyla Stringer, Zack Stringer’s mom AND billet mom. Yes, you read that right. One of our hometown boys, Zack, lives at home during the hockey season and well…year-round. As we’ve been sharing stories from billets about what it’s like opening their homes to our players, today we talk about what it’s like having your son stay at home instead of being billeted by another family in a different city.

Zack and Kyla

For those who don’t know, Zack is of Haitian descent and is an adopted child. Kyla brought up the idea of adoption with her then-husband, Ian Van Seters who did not hesitate to say ‘yes’. “He had a big, big heart,” says Kyla of Ian, who lost his fight with cancer in March of 2012. They began their international adoption process after meeting a Haitian woman while on vacation. They spoke with her and learned of the hardships and quality of life in her home country and so decided to look into orphanages in Haiti. They came across Haiti Children’s Home in Mirebalais, Haiti and after much research, they found there were a number of families in Alberta who adopted from the orphanage. They also learned of the continued support Haiti Children’s Home receives from adoptive families after they return home with their son and/or daughter, Kyla and Ian felt it was a good fit. So, two-and-a-half years after starting the international adoption process, they were able to bring Yvenel (Zack) home.

Zack’s first year in CanSkate, 4-years-old

Zack was just 17-months at the time and Kyla said he was full of energy. Already walking and speaking a little Creole, Zack picked up English rather quickly and was running around the house as soon as they arrived. She says he picked up a mini-stick shortly after and the rest, as they say, is history. Zack quickly developed a love for hockey and wanted to be ‘Iggy’ when he grew up. “Iggy! Iggy!” Kyla recalls with a laugh, “Zack loved Jarome Iginla.” Kyla loves the connection Zack has made with hockey, finding it remarkable that he is “doing the most Canadian thing you can do, playing for your hometown WHL team.” What a joy it has been for Lethbridge hockey fans to watch Zack adopt Canada’s greatest pastime and develop into the player that he is today.

Zack and Ranger

Zack lives at home with mom, Kyla, and younger siblings Ella (10), and Tom (8). They also have two dogs, a five-year-old German Shepherd named Rosie and a two-year-old Lab named Ranger.

We jumped on a call with Kyla after realizing that most of the questions we were asking billets didn’t apply in this instance because Zack is living at home, not at a billets. Throughout our conversation a general theme became very clear, “it takes a village.” The saying came up time and again as we discussed Zack’s hockey career thus far. Kyla could not thank, recognize, and mention enough, the people who helped Zack get to where he is now.

The Lethbridge Hurricanes have always said “welcome to the Hurricanes family” while striving to build that family atmosphere and culture with each player drafted, listed and invited to training camp; as well as their families. For Kyla, she says “The whole Hurricanes organization is like a big, weird, awesome village just trying to raise some good men. It’s been incredible to be so well supported for our whole family.” A statement that rings true through Zack’s minor hockey days as well.

Zack as a Coaldale Cobra

They lived in Coaldale before moving to Lethbridge so Zack was first a Coaldale Cobra before joining the Lethbridge Minor Hockey Association (LMHA). It was around this time that the Lethbridge Hurricanes and LMHA began their partnership that saw LMHA Rep teams adopt the Hurricanes jersey and renamed to the Lethbridge Junior Hurricanes. “Having raised Zack first in Coaldale, then Lethbridge it feels VERY special that he’s been able to stay at home to play for the Hurricanes. Since the LMHA has a partnership with the Hurricanes he’s been wearing the ‘Canes logo almost his whole life!”

Kyla is thankful Zack went through the Lethbridge Minor Hockey Association at the time he did and with the group of players and their families that he had. She spoke highly of his former minor hockey coaches, Mike Dyck and Mark Greig. They rallied an impressive and caring group of support staff who worked tirelessly to help their players reach the next level of hockey. “We owe a lot to Char Dyck, the Team Manager, who made it easy for parents to help their children reach high-level hockey. Char had everything managed to a tee. It really takes a village, and Lethbridge Minor Hockey is a village. We received great support from the Horon’s, the Greig’s, the Dyck’s and so many more. They all went above and beyond.” Like we said, a village.

Off the ice, Zack has been training with Lethbridge Hurricanes Strength and Conditioning Coach, Trevor Hardy, since Zack was 12. Singing high praises for Trevor, Kyla said he “is a great resource for parents, above and beyond hockey.” Before Zack was a Lethbridge Hurricane, Trevor referred Kyla to people in town for injuries or care such as a chiropractor, physiotherapist, and more. Kyla said, “Trevor was always able to keep Zack focused in the off-season and always encouraged Zack in his academics. Above all that, Hard Training is a gathering point for the Lethbridge hockey community in the off-season.” This rings true, as local NHL, WHL, Junior-A, Junior-B, and other players train with Trevor when they are home during the off-season. Kyla is very grateful for Trevor who she says, “will give parents hours of his time to talk through any challenges with players related to food, emotions, injury, and more. He cares so deeply for the players it’s evident. I’m very thankful for all that he has done for Zack.”

Grandma Linda with Tom and Ella

With three kids at home, one being a growing teenage junior hockey player, Kyla says her regular day includes a lot of cooking and “being the mom taxi.” When Kyla was pregnant with Ella then Tom, Zack’s hockey schedule began picking up especially with away games and tournaments. They managed Zack’s budding travel schedule with the help of Ella and Tom’s dad, Matt Stringer, as well as Kyla’s parents, Grandpa Ted and Grandma Linda. They all pitched in, Matt took on the task of managing Zack’s teams for four seasons. Grandpa Ted and Grandma Linda played a large role in Zack’s early hockey career taking him to and from practices and games, then driving Zack to away games and tournaments and providing lots of love, support, and food for the family during those times. Plus, they took on the unofficial role of broadcaster as they sent photos, videos, and updates via text from those games.

Grandpa Ted and Grandma Linda with Zack after he scored his first WHL goal

Kyla says Grandpa Ted and Grandma Linda are Zack’s number one fans. “Zack is the apple of his eye,” is how Kyla describes Zack and Grandpa Ted’s relationship. Grandpa Ted has a few granddaughters from Kyla’s sister and of course, Ella but Zack was his only grandson for ten years until little Tom came along. So, for ten years, Zack and Grandpa Ted were blessed with the time to form a strong bond and relationship over hockey. You will not meet a prouder grandpa. Kyla shared a story of Grandpa Ted, who is now retired but takes joy in driving a school bus filled with kids each week. She said one of his favourite things is at the “bus barn” where the drivers go to check-in and check-out and where the buses are parked when not in use, often the other drivers want to talk to Grandpa Ted about the previous night’s game. In particular, they enjoy chatting about Zack and every time is a proud moment for Grandpa Ted. Zack’s grandparents are proud Lethbridge Hurricanes season ticket holders and Kyla says they always return to their seats beaming as they wander the concourse and love hearing fans talk about their grandson. Proud may not do justice in describing Grandpa Ted’s feelings.

Tom and Ella helping Zack with his workout

Aside from the usual birthday and holiday celebrations Kyla, Ella, and Tom have a game day ritual to help keep it light on game days, it started with Kyla saying “don’t suck” before Zack headed to the rink and now Ella and Tom do it too. A pretty unique and interesting game day tradition, we asked to know the story behind it. “Don’t Suck” came about when Zack was 12 years old and playing spring hockey. Kyla was driving Zack, two teammates and their dads to an away tournament, as they got closer to the rink the two dads started giving their sons a pep talk and little reminders for the games. When they finished Kyla got the sense everyone in the car was expecting a pep talk from Kyla for Zack. “Well, I’m not a hockey player and I don’t know the sport that well, other than from the perspective of a hockey mom. So, all I could say was ‘don’t suck.’ Everyone burst out laughing and that was that.” To Kyla, “don’t suck” means more than just the literal translation of those two words, “it means go out and do your best but enjoy that it’s just a game. Don’t stress too much about it and just be blessed that you can play it. We are lucky to be where we live and it’s a privilege to play the game so don’t forget to enjoy the game, keep it light and fun.” The way Kyla sees it is that “players will put enough stress on themselves so I don’t need to add to it and I don’t need to pretend to be a coach. That’s what the coaches are for.” So, to this day as Zack heads out the door for a game at the ENMAX Centre, you are sure to hear “don’t suck” from Kyla, Ella, and Tom. For road games, they will call or FaceTime at some point on game day before Zack heads to the rink.

Other things that happen on game day at the Stringer household? “Zack loves a big breakfast on home game days. Pancakes, bacon, eggs; it’s everybody’s favourite,” says Kyla. Zack also likes butter chicken and rice on game days. Though there isn’t anything in the pantry that wouldn’t normally be there like it appears is the case with other billet families, Kyla does say she stocks up on Eggo’s and Gatorade powder.

Ella and Tom at a ‘Canes game

So, how do Ella and Tom feel about their star big brother? “They are very proud of him and sick of hockey,” laughs Kyla. Neither Ella nor Tom followed in their big brother’s footsteps, Ella took to cheerleading and Tom loves his Judo. But they are at pretty much every Hurricanes home game, though Kyla says “by the end of the season they are pretty done with being rink-rats.” Their favourite thing is snow-cones so you’ll likely see those in their hands quite often near the end of the season, and Ella loves to ‘Floss’ – as in the dance move. Maybe you’ve seen her a few times on the video board ‘flossing’ her way through a song.

Though neither Ella nor Tom play hockey, Kyla is grateful Zack is playing the sport he loves in his hometown with his family nearby because his siblings look up to him and it is showing Ella and Tom about commitment and passion. It’s also provided another gathering opportunity for the family and extended family as they go to the games together and will often watch away games together in the basement. Though Ian passed in 2012, the Van Seters, a large family, stayed involved in Zack’s hockey career and can be seen all over the ENMAX Centre cheering for Zack and the Hurricanes.

Kyla also expressed her gratitude for the support the Hurricanes organization receives from the community. “We are lucky and blessed that Lethbridge is a small town. It’s so heartening to go around the rink and hear people cheering for the ‘Canes because it seems the community really wants the best for the kids. We have a special group of fans in Lethbridge who are there to support the kids and also to hold them accountable, and I am so grateful for that.” In Lethbridge, you get to know the people who sit near you at the games, especially season ticket holders because you see the same faces time and again. So, when a season ticket holder put two-and-two together and realized Kyla is Zack’s mom she pulled out her phone and there was a photo of the fan and Zack at a community event. She told Kyla that was one of her favourite photos and Zack is her favourite Hurricanes player.

Zack in the Whoop-Up Days parade

Kyla loves it when she hears stories like that and others from fans about their interactions with Zack. As a family that has received so much from the hockey community, Kyla instills in Zack that it is important to help those around him. “I just want him to be happy and to give back to the sport and community that’s given him so much.” That’s why you will see Zack in the community helping at minor hockey practices, and volunteering his time during the summer for different community events. The family is proud that Zack is playing for their hometown team; they are part of the so-called “village” and want to help those who were in their footsteps not too long ago. As for billeting, Kyla says she would love to continue even when Zack’s junior career comes to an end.

What are some hockey memories you have to share?

Telus Cup and Hockey Alberta memorabilia

We were in Philadelphia when Zack was drafted by the Hurricanes in the WHL Bantam Draft. We were so happy; the whole goal was to be drafted by Lethbridge. First, we were in Sudbury, Ontario for the 2018 Telus Cup (the Canadian National U-18 Championship) where Zack and his Lethbridge Hurricanes captured bronze at the tournament, Zack was named the tournament’s Top Forward, and was also recognized as player of the game once during the tournament. It was at this tournament that I realized Zack could have a real future in hockey. Following the Telus Cup, we travelled to Philadelphia for a spring hockey tournament with a put-together team of Western Canadian players. We had a game on draft day but were able to watch the draft in a hotel room with Nolan Allan (who went third overall to the Prince Albert Raiders in that same draft) and his mom, Kelly. Then we headed to the rink for the game and after I was trying to get Zack out of the dressing room because the media in Lethbridge wanted to speak with him.

Zack was almost late for his first Hurricanes home game as an affiliate player when he was 15-years-old. He was called up for a game and took a pre-game nap but there was a miscommunication about whether I was waking him up for his pre-game meal or if he was setting an alarm. Well, he woke up just barely in time and was panicking as he threw his clothes on and we slipped out the door “I don’t even think he had socks on and he was wolfing down food in the car.”

Because Ella and Tom grew up in rinks, Tom thought he’d be able to skate without learning. He was wrong haha. He spent two seasons of CanSkate lying on the ice! To this day he still doesn’t skate, he’ll just sit on a sled if he goes at all.

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

Do it! If you like to cook and have room for more love, laugh, and of course, hockey; it’s unlike anything else. Kyla knows a little bit from the other side of it now, too. With Zack having spent the past few weeks in Drayton Valley with the Thunder of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Kya has had the billet experience as a mom whose teenage son is living in a different city. Though it was just a short stint, Kyla was still a nervous mom as Zack hit the road for Drayton Valley. She is thankful for the guidance Zack received from his billet family during those weeks.

*Photos provided by Kyla Stringer

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