The Palmers are a baseball family by trade. They got into the hockey business by chance.
Shortly after the La Crosse Loggers wrapped up their 2015 season, Andy and Tosha Palmer — both loyal fans of the highly popular Northwoods League team — agreed to become a host family for the Loggers, with every intention of opening their home in 2016.
But they didn’t need to wait a full year to get started. They welcomed an athlete into their home just days later, and he wasn’t a baseball player.
“A mom who had already billeted (for the Coulee Region Chill) brought our name up,” Tosha Palmer said. “So we talked to some people about getting involved with the Chill. (Coulee Region housing director) Shelly LaPlount asked us on a Thursday, we talked about it and decided Friday, and we had Chad Sasaki by Sunday. It was a matter of two days.”
Now, the Palmers — who eventually fulfilled their original intention of housing baseball players last summer — are one of a handful of local families housing prospects for both the Loggers and Chill, a duality they plan to maintain.
Billeting for the Chill and Loggers is theoretically similar: A volunteer family, like the Palmers, offers their home to an athlete pursuing their dream. But the similarities essentially stop there.
“It’s a little different with the Loggers,” LaPlount said. “The Loggers are only at the home for breakfast, typically, and then they go to the ballparks. And so the families aren’t really having to feed them as much, where our families really are. Our players are home a lot for meals.”
That shouldn’t suggest that billeting for summer baseball is commitment free, because it isn’t. But the Loggers players spend a lot more time away from their volunteer homes.
The Loggers play half of a 70-game regular season schedule on the road each summer — not including the All-Star break and Big Dreams Showcase — and as a result, they simply aren’t in La Crosse as often. This season, the Loggers play four road stretches of at least three games, and two trips of at least five games. Additionally, players not selected for the Northwoods League All-Star Game often return home for a brief three-day respite during the regular-season lull in mid-July.
Furthermore, host families generally don’t see much of their Loggers players on a day-to-day basis.
“With the Loggers, by the time we get home from work, they’re gone already for the night. So really, we don’t even connect with them until after the game,” Andy Palmer said. “We stop down on the field and talk to them for a little bit, but even then, they’re running to get something to eat, or they’re going to lift weights or do their kind of thing. And then we see them again when they get home, but only if we haven’t gone to bed.”
The Chill, meanwhile, utilize their billet families far more often, and that isn’t by coincidence. It’s a necessity.
“With the Chill guys, they’re home by 5 o’clock after practice, and then they’re just there,” Andy Palmer said.
“They’re part of the family.”
During a typical week, the Coulee Region Chill players spend Monday through Thursday in preparation, with a Tuesday off-day mixed in. Friday and Saturday are game days. Sunday is another off day.
If the Chill play a weekend series at home, they’re spending all week at their respective billet families' homes — which means seven consecutive days’ worth of meals, and seven uninterrupted nights in their adoptive beds. And that’s just one week. An extended home stand can keep junior-hockey players home for several weeks.
Coulee Region has already experienced a similar stretch this season, when they played 11 of 13 games at home between Oct. 22 and Dec. 2. Over that span, Chill players could have spent as many as 53 consecutive nights in their billet homes — a stretch that would otherwise account for more than 70 percent of the Northwoods League’s upcoming regular season.
“Our players spend a lot less time at the homes of our host families,” Loggers general manager Chris Goodell said. “With hockey, you play on weekends and practice throughout the week. But for us, we might go on a six-game road trip to Canada and northern Minnesota, and they don’t even see our guys until they get home. The difference in schedules adds a different dynamic in terms of the interaction with our players.”