In the world of junior hockey, the words ‘behind the scenes’ can imply many things.
Whether its the general manager working the phones to bolster his personnel or the equipment staff ensuring sweaters are freshly laundered ahead of a Saturday home game, plenty of roles come to mind when one mentions ‘behind the scenes’ in regards to a local junior hockey team.
But there’s one vital place within a successful junior hockey organization that often goes overlooked.
For every player that comes from out of town to play for a junior hockey team like the Kimberley Dynamiters of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, there is a billet family waiting with open arms and, in all likelihood, fantastic cooking.
As the Dynamiters opened the 2015-16 KIJHL season Saturday night against the Golden Rockets at the Kimberley Civic Centre, the organization took a moment to recognize the efforts of one of their most dedicated billet families.
Iona and Lyle Prier have been opening their door to Kimberley Dynamiters players since 1996. With the 2015-16 season underway, the Kimberley couple are entering their 20th season billeting for the local Junior B organization.
Back in September 1996, with their son getting married and their daughter moving down the highway to Cranbrook, Iona and Lyle were suddenly left with an empty nest.
But that didn’t last for very long.
A conversation at work got the Priers considering the prospects of billeting, but they weren’t left with much time to think on it.
“Within the next week I got a phone call from the general manager,” Iona recalled on Saturday night ahead of the Nitros home opener against the Golden Rockets. “’Can you take two boys tonight?’
“Well, we weren’t ready for two boys, but we’ve been billeting ever since.”
That fateful night, Stewart Sacharuk and Rob Yamashita were the first Dynamiters to walk into the Priers home. Since then, Iona and Lyle have provided for 60 different junior hockey players, welcoming two each season.
This year, rookie forward Justin Van Tetering, an 18-year-old native of Red Deer, Alta., joins veteran defenceman Jordan Busch, 20, living with the Priers.
Busch — the KIJHL’s reigning Eddie Mountain Division Defenceman of the Year and a native of Edmonton, Alta. — is entering his third season living with Iona and Lyle Prier.
“The Priers have welcomed me into their home with open arms,” Busch said Tuesday. “They make me feel as if I am at home, and they are a huge reason why I do call Kimberley home.
“I’ve grown a lot as a person in this house. My first year was the hardest being away from home…The Priers made it an easy transition moving to Kimberley.
“It’s small things like having good meals away from the rink so you can perform on the ice, or even just being able to have a conversation with them really makes being away from home a lot easier.”
The hurdle of moving away from home at an early age often provides the greatest challenge for young junior hockey players.
While plenty of time is spent at the rink or at school, time spent at home can often be the difference-maker in a young player finding the path to success, both on and off the ice.
“Dedicated billet families are so crucial to the success of our organization,” said Karrie Hall, who volunteered as the Dynamiters billet coordinator (and houses two of her own billets) for four years before moving into the role of secretary this season. “You can never have too many quality billet families.
“Every player that has ever been billeted with the Priers has always requested to go back there the following season. They’re such a positive influence on the boys. That sort of family atmosphere helps our players grow into men off the ice, while allowing them to strive for success on the ice.”
Though his own children have moved out his home, Lyle has relished the opportunity to maintain a father-figure role for each of the players he has gotten to know over the years as they learn the ropes of living without their own family.
From his experience, there’s a delicate balance to be maintained — providing support and a comfortable home while also giving responsibilities and encouraging the boys to learn how to become men.
“These guys, I look at them as somebody’s son, somebody’s grandson,” Lyle said. “We treat them that way.
“We have been blessed. I keep telling the billet coordinator she gives us the best boys each season.
“I thank the Lord that we’ve been able to do it. We’ve had excellent cooperation from the Dynamiter organization and the boys. It’s been great.”
In their 20th season, Iona and Lyle are regular fixtures at the Kimberley Civic Centre, coming for each home game to support their billet boys and the Dynamiters.
“It’s nice to see them at every home game cheering us on,” Busch said. “I love coming back to the house and being able to talk to them about the game.
“They are so easy to be around. They make you feel comfortable.
“I have to give a big thanks to the Priers for the way they treat me away from the rink.”
Before opening their home to junior hockey billets, the Priers didn’t really consider themselves hockey fans. Now, you might call them die-hard Dynamiter fans.
“It’s been a good experience and we get to come to all the hockey games. Now, our kids think we’re crazy,” Iona said with a laugh. “They’re not hockey fans but their parents are.”