When Matt Doran left La Crosse last May — shortly after the Coulee Region Chill were eliminated from the Midwest Division playoffs — he barely packed.
A native of St. Louis, Mo., Doran hit the road with little more than a laundry basket full of clothes in his back seat.
He left the rest behind.
“He’s never moved anything out. We’ve never asked him to. That’s his room,” said Tina Theisen, a Holmen resident, who has hosted Doran as a guest — and an adopted family member, she’d say — in her home since 2014.
“This is his home, whenever he wants it to be.”
Doran has been a thankful recipient of Theisen’s hospitality the past three years, but his situation isn’t exactly unique. Every season, hundreds of American junior hockey players leave their homes in search of another, hoping to further their collegiate — or even professional — ambition with a productive career at the junior level.
In many cases, those players travel hundreds of miles to do so. Excluding the 12-hour, 55-minute plane ride of newly acquired forward Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup — a native of Charlottenlund, Denmark — the Chill collectively traverse an average of 291.6 miles between their respective hometowns and La Crosse.
Given that distance, junior players depend heavily on the generosity of strangers; a home away from home. That’s where billets — or host families — play an imperative role.
“Matt blended with our family right away,” Theisen said. “I laugh; I always say it’s like he’s always been here. I think just with how he was raised, how his mom and I are very much alike, it made him comfortable here, and we’re very comfortable having him stay with us.
“We’ve never even thought about not having him live here. This is his home.”
As a junior hockey player, Doran isn’t alone in his need for temporary living accommodations, but his bond with the Theisen family is a special one.
Facilitating that kind of connection takes plenty of work.
Pairing players and host families is a full-time task, one that requires careful consideration; not to mention thorough background checks on both sides. It isn’t easy, and it takes time.
But you don’t have to tell Coulee Region housing director Shelly LaPlount, whose office becomes a proverbial jigsaw puzzle in mid-August.
“When it’s that couple weeks before the players come in, I have all the applications lined up all around here,” said LaPlount, pointing to the desk and cabinet space throughout her office at Green Island Ice Arena.
“It’s just kind of this big puzzle, and it’s our job to determine who’s going to fit where best.”
The fitting process is complex.
Once they’ve made the team, new Chill players are required to fill out a detailed application form. The form itself is thorough, covering the most basic background information while also delving into more complex personality traits.
Q: Are you willing to live with animals?
Q: How clean is your bedroom at home?
Q: What constitutes your typical pregame routine?
“We’ve even added questions like, ‘How do you react to a loss?’ Because the billets need to know, if they lose, let’s not talk to him for a good 12 hours. That’s easy enough to know ahead of time, you know? We go through all of that.”
Aspiring billets fill out applications, as well. From there, LaPlount and her staff review those applications until everyone is situated; until every incoming player has a home.
The Chill take the matchmaking process seriously. LaPlount does the best she can, because her players depend on it.
“I tell these boys, ‘Your success on the ice is directly related to your success at home. If you are not happy at home, you will not be happy on the ice and you will not produce,’” LaPlount said. “My job is to make them successful all the way around. Coach (Ryan Egan) has the ice. I have the home.
“If we do our jobs right, everyone is successful.”
Sometimes, that success has to be fast tracked.
Junior hockey is an ever-changing entity, not unlike the professional ranks. And like professionals, junior players can be released, called up or traded at a moment’s notice, just as Larry Jungwirth was less than a month ago. In exchange for a pair of teenage forwards — Andy McGlynn and Christian Stevens — Jungwirth’s rights were shipped 1,418 miles south to Corpus Christi, Texas, in a trade finalized Jan. 3.
Moves like that happen quickly in most cases, usually in a matter of hours. That keeps housing directors like LaPlount on high alert.
“If a player comes in midseason, that’s a little tougher to find a good match because I may only have a few hours’ notice that somebody’s coming,” said LaPlount, who has since arranged long-term housing options for both Stevens and McGlynn.
“When that happens, I don’t have all of that background information ahead of me. I’ll call them (incoming players), check on allergies, and basically ask them if there’s anything I need to know: ‘Do you have your own transportation? Do you want a roommate?’
“Then, with what I have left, I pick the best option.”
And that’s only one side of the coin. In other instances, billet families have players snatched from their grasp.
It happened to Andy and Tosha Palmer not long ago, when 16-year-old goaltender Todd Scott was called up to the USHL’s Sioux City Muskateers in mid-December.
The Palmer family initially housed Scott on a part-time basis upon his arrival in early October. That arrangement became full-time a few days later.
“We hit it off with Todd right away, and he knew Jackson from last year — they had played together before — and coach (Egan) kind of wanted those two guys together, just to get him better acclimated to the team. And it just kind of happened,” said Andy Palmer, whose family also hosts rookie defenseman Jackson Decker.
“When Todd came to our house, we never said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ or, ‘No, let’s not.’ It just kind of happened. We knew it was working out, so we just kept rolling with it.”
For billets, that kind of flexibility isn’t an option. It’s required.
“Sometimes, I’m calling a family and saying, ‘He’s coming home, he’s packing up and he’s heading to the Magicians.’ They have to be flexible to know that they could get somebody at the drop of a hat, and they could lose somebody at the drop of a hat,” LaPlount said. “They’re all aware of that, and I tell them, ‘If that’s not for you, I need to know, because that’s kind of what the business is.’”
Before Decker made the Palmer residence his second home, there was Chad Sasaki.
Sasaki spent his only NAHL campaign with the Chill last season, and did so as the adopted sixth member of the Palmer family — joining Andy and Tosha’s three sons: Mason, Xavier and Desmond.
“With it being our first year, we were very lucky to have Chad,” Andy Palmer said.
Over the course of last year’s eight-month schedule, the Palmers developed a meaningful bond with Sasaki, with whom they still maintain regular contact. Those kind of connections are common with billet families.
It also makes it difficult to say goodbye.
“After our last game, there are a lot of tears in the stands with these families, because they don’t know what the future holds. And it is emotional,” LaPlount said. “They do get attached to the players, and the players do get attached to them.”
The Palmers were no exception last season. When Andy and Tosha bid Sasaki farewell, it hit their sons the hardest.
“Xavier wouldn’t even turn and look at Chad,” Andy Palmer said. “I could see him sitting over in a chair across the room, and he was shaking because he was crying so hard. Desmond, our youngest, cried himself to sleep that night. And Mason is one of those kids who can choke everything back a little bit, but he showed some tears that night, too.
“It’s going to be just as tough this year when Jackson goes, probably even more so.”
“I think that’s a really unique situation,” LaPlount said. “You will have that friendship for the rest of your life.”
That is surely the case for the Palmers, as it will be for the Theisens when Doran eventually departs.
It’s just part of the job.
“The goodbye part is very difficult, but I think that’s also one of the benefits we see in it, just the emotional ties that you make,” Andy Palmer said. “The fact that we still talk to Chad and they still talk to Chad, that says a lot.
“If it was something where these kids were just living with us and not becoming a part of the family, I don’t know how long we would do it, but that isn’t the case.
“These kids really do become part of the family.”