Coombs is sitting in his office two weeks ago and he’s tired. The Bees have just wrapped up a practice and the coach is doing the thing he hates the most — trying to cut the roster down from 26 players to 23 the team is allowed to have. The deadline for having the roster set at 23 players is only a few days.
He’s been delaying the inevitable for a few days. “I don’t coach to give bad news,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
Coombs has to contemplate this decision while he misses home. He’s a native of Brantford, Ontario in Canada and met his wife in Topeka, Kan. where he was coaching a Central Hockey League team. He and his wife have two daughters. “I haven’t seen them in six months,” he said with a sigh.
Despite years of experiencing coaching and competing away from home, it never gets easy. Even at 19 and 20, players have already spent months away from home. Dedenbach has been traveling for hockey since his sophomore year in high school. Dylan Abood said he’s been doing it since he was nine or 10 years old.
It’s a harsh adjustment at first, Abood said, but eventually it just becomes a way of life. “When I first came into the league, it was a bit of an adjustment,” Abood said. “What made it easier at first and this year is the billet families.”
The billet families are the families who provide room and board while the players are on the team. NAHL players aren’t paid and need host families. Vicky Bourdon and her husband, Steve, are one of those families. They house Abood and JB Baker. Originally from Canada, Bourdon and her husband are big hockey fans. When they first heard of the potential of being a billet family — the place a player calls home during the season — Vicky wasn’t thrilled.
“I thought, ‘We’re not doing that,’” she said with a chuckle. “We didn’t want strangers in the house, silly things like that.”
Eventually, the Bourdon’s let players into their home. Most of the Bourdon’s friends also became billet families. Despite her initial resistance, the players grew on her. She saw how they interacted with her own kids and eventually the players weren’t strangers anymore. Sami Pokka was one of the players that stayed at her house until he was traded to Corpus Christi before the New Year. It didn’t go over well.
“We were heartbroken,” she said. “We all cried; it was just terrible. We loved him.”
Earlier in the month, the family huddled around a smart phone, video chatting with Pokka on his 21st birthday. Vicky’s youngest daughter uses Whatsapp, a messaging app for smart phones, to still stay in touch.
They’re part of the family now. “They are such great kids,” she said. “We have dinner together every night, we sit and talk. They’re really great with interacting and wonderful with the kids. It’ll be very hard when they leave in April and May.”