Karen Engelbrecht pulls into her Sardis driveway with Old Dutch potato chips and a four-litre container of chocolate milk bulging in a grocery bag.
This will clearly not be consumed by the diminutive woman. No, the salt, sugar and calories are for the 215-pound, six-foot-two-inch Chilliwack Chief defenceman who is playing ping-pong with his buddies in her basement.
"They are still kids and you always have to remember that," Engelbrecht says of her hockey "son" T.J. Roche.
Engelbrecht has been billeting Chilliwack Chief and Bruin hockey players for close to a decade.
The only year she and her husband Ron missed was 2008/2009 when they were living in Santa Monica, Calif., for treatment of Ron's cancer.
It was his love of hockey that initiated the billeting of players in their home.
"He did 25 years in the penalty box in the old barn," Karen says of Ron's stint volunteering for the team.
Ron died in 2009 but Karen continued on billeting players because of her love of the kids and her role as "mom" in the house.
"There was that and I just learned to love hockey," she says.
Her "real" son played hockey too, but now that he and her daughter are grown up and moved out, continuing to take in the boys and young men who play for the Chiefs just made sense.
And she clearly loves it. On a Thursday as the Times visits her house, it's less than an hour before team practice and Roche, an American from Northport, N.Y., is hanging out with team captain and Langley native Austin Plevy. The two are teammates in an intense game of ping-pong against Texan Blake Grober and Mathieu Tibbet who hails from Delaware.
The basement, with its 50-inch TV, couches, video games and ping-pong table, is "their turf," according to Engelbrecht.
The three are over often as Grober and Plevy live with a family just around the corner.
Tibbet lives just three doors down with Michelle Dennill and her family. This is the fourth year Dennill has billeted hockey players. She said they first signed up because they no longer had a basement suite renter and they thought it would be fun to share their home.
"It has been really great for our kids to have a personal connection with someone on the ice during Chiefs games," she said. "Both my boys play hockey and delight in going to the games and seeing their 'big brother' play. Our hockey billets really do become part of the family."
The Dennills have also billeted Matt Hutchinson in 2011/2012 and Bruin Mike Forsyth in the 2010/2011 season.
The Engelbrechts have had many boys in their home, as many as three at a time some seasons. The basement "man cave" as Roche refers to it, is full of signed hockey sticks and autographed photos of former Chiefs and Bruins.
There is Josh Lunden who is currently playing for the Winnipeg Jets farm team. A photo of former Chief Spencer Graboski, now at Sacred Heart University, hangs on the wall, signed with the note: "Karen. Thank you so much for all you've done for me. These two years have been awesome."
There was Tyler Stahl who was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes and is still in their system.
"One of [Tyler's] first phone calls this year when he got engaged was to me," Engelbrecht said. "He told his parents and then me."
There was Dillon Johnstone, Chris Eppich, Garret Forster, Cody Hobbs and more.
There are always ups and downs when you forge connections with these young men. Mostly they are ups as players move on to university teams or higher levels, but the most heartbreaking in the "down" category came this summer when Engelbrecht learned that one of her former Bruin billets, 25-year-old Kevin Boutilier had drowned in Shuswap Lake.
"That was devastating," she said. Families who billet the boys and young men who play hockey in the BCHL and WHL know that they are a surrogate family for players far from home. Sometimes relationships are forged with players' parents who come to visit. And sometimes billets like Engelbrecht and Dennill can lend an ear, provide a comforting meal and be like a mom to young guys who might be a little homesick.
"It is great to be able to provide a place where he can relax and unwind," Dennill says. "A hockey players schedule is quite demanding so making a home away from home sure helps."
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