By Rebecca Rowe, Kalamazoo Sr. Times
When people think about Kalamazoo and hockey, it’s the K-Wings, an ECHL Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League team, which generally comes to mind. And with events like the annual “Green Ice Game,” considered by many to be one of the most celebrated games in minor league hockey, (to be played this St. Patrick’s Day), it’s hardly surprising.
There is, however, another team working hard on the Kalamazoo ice and that’s the Kalamazoo Junior K-Wings, an American Junior A North American Hockey League (NAHL) team. The team, which plays at Wings West Arena, is comprised of 16- to 20-year-old hockey players from a number of cities in the United States and other countries.
“Unlike other sports like basketball or football, hockey players do not generally travel a path that goes straight from high school sports into college sports,” explained Geoff Miller, who along with his wife Rhonda has opened up their Portage home to a Junior K-Wings athlete this season. “There is a kind of middle ground if you will in hockey and that’s known as junior hockey. The players are still amateur status; they’re not paid to play."
The intent is to give them additional time to mature as players and prove their strength and so forth. And at some point, after spending a few years in junior hockey, many hope to be picked up by a college for varsity hockey or perhaps maybe make it into the pro ranks.
Because many of the team’s players are playing away from home, local housing is sought for them. Most families volunteer to host two players and provide them with a bed- room/living space, regular home facilities, meals in the home, etc., Miller said. “In our case, we have one of the high school-aged players on the team. He’s a senior at Portage Central so we act a little bit as a parent so to speak,” Miller noted.
The Miller family adopted Junior K-Wing’ is Brennan Sanford from Holt, Mich. While Sanford may be a little less than an hour away from home, it’s a lot further for some of his teammates. “One of the goalies is from Sweden,” Miller pointed out, “and there is a Canadian player from Prince Edward Island.”
Because Sanford is closer to home than many of his teammates, his parents are able to make it to some of his games and as a result the Millers have had the opportunity to get to know and become good friends with his parents and siblings.
Being a host family is something that the Millers had some previous short-term experience with thanks to the Softball World Series, which took place in Kalamazoo every August. “We enjoyed opening our home for those players so decided to go ahead and help out with Junior K-Wings and go with the longer experience,” Miller said. Players begin their stays with their housing families in late August and will stay until their season ends, which depends on how far they go in the playoffs, according to Miller but in all likelihood will probably be sometime in March. Sanford hopes to re- turn to his home high school and graduate with his friends after this season is complete but wants to be back with the Junior K-Wings next season and back in the Millers’ home as well.
The team expects its players to participate in some sort of activity other than hockey during the season, Miller said. “It could be attending a local community college or getting a part-time job or volunteering in the community,” he noted, “so they’re not just sitting around the host families’ home doing nothing.”
Miller sees being a housing family as a good potential fit for some seniors. “It definitely could be a fun opportunity for someone who may have a home with some spare bedrooms, particularly if they enjoy the sport of hockey,” he noted. “The kids all seem very well behaved and polite and they actually have a 9 o’clock curfew in the evenings. They’re expected to be back in those families’ home by then. The coaching staff takes very special care to make sure that their players aren’t abusing the privileges of the host families. Team rules are enforced very vigorously if need be...which isn’t very often. Players understand the special relation- ship that the host families offer and they are very careful not to do anything to spoil that relationship,” he added.
Players also have their own transportation so that is not something the host family has to worry about providing. Those interested in housing a Junior K-Wing will need to fill out an application form and once the application has been processed an interview may be scheduled. As part of a “thank you” for their generosity, housing families are given tickets to the team’s games. The Junior K-Wings play the majority of their games at Wings West and a handful of games at Wings Stadium. Miller said that although the team’s away games are a little too far afield for the family to attend, they generally get to most of the home games to cheer Sanford on.
Being a housing family for the Kalamazoo Junior K-Wings has been a positive experience for the Millers in a number of ways. “It has been an enjoyable experience. We feel we got a great match in Brennan and he has been very, very low maintenance, no problems to speak of. He’s a great kid and we’ve enjoyed watching him play,” Miller remarked. “Being the younger player, he doesn’t get as much ice time as some of the more experienced players, which is a new experience for him because he has always been used to being one of the top players on whatever team he has played on. So it is fun watching him find his way and fit in.”