Forward Cameron Morris might lead the Anchorage Wolverines in assists, but billet coordinator Autumn Makar is next level when it comes to setting players up.
How next level? Try NHL caliber — the National Hockey League chose her as the inaugural Most Valuable Hockey Mom in 2019 for the work she did for youth hockey programs in Anchorage.
These days, when Makar isn’t working, she is tasked with keeping track of every player who comes to Anchorage to play on its North American Hockey League junior team and the families they live with. It’s fair to wonder how she does it. If you ask her, she will tell you flatly with a hint of amusement, “I have a big spreadsheet.”
As is customary in junior hockey, the first-year franchise uses billeting to house players. The system is similar to a foreign-exchange program. A host family provides a place to live for a young person who is willing to leave home and be boarded in pursuit of personal growth.
Finding the right fit for each player, and their billet family, is complicated and requires no small amount of due diligence on Makar’s part. Making successful connections is essential for the system to create positive outcomes for everyone involved — player, family, team and the community.
Makar, who grew up in Anchorage, has the background, personality and organizational skills to put the Wolverines players in the right place to make progress — on the ice and off it.
Says Caroline Kirby, who, with her husband, Matt, and four children, houses two players: “She’s amazing.”
The players and families both have to fill out questionnaires to start the process, and the forms aren’t mere formalities.
Beyond establishing identity, players are asked, among a long list of other things, about dietary restrictions, allergies, comfortability with younger children, which, if any, second languages they spoke at home, medical conditions, religious affiliations and down-time interests.
The Wolverines are equally vigilant in vetting the families. The potential hosts are required, for starters, to submit to a background check. And then come the questions. Who lives there? How old are they? Any pets, and if so, what kind? Does anyone smoke? If so, where? Religious affiliation, diet restrictions among family members, medical issues and household dynamics are all investigated.
Put all the questionnaires from both piles together, and you understand why the coordinator uses a spreadsheet. The final exam for every potential billet family is a home inspection by Makar.
Establishing compatibility sometimes goes beyond any of the standard questions or concerns on the applications.
When the Kirbys were considering the feasibility of hosting, one such issue was raised. Their children didn’t want someone staying at their house who would swear.
“We don’t use any profanity in our house ... my kids go to public school, so obviously they’re exposed to it,” Kirby said. “But having someone in your home is very personal. They just were pretty passionate that someone not use bad language in our house ... It seemed a little crazy to suggest that to Autumn, but she nailed it.”
Hunter Bischoff of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and Bo Panasenko of Ukraine have been living with the Kirbys without incident.
Said Kirby: “Hunter is incredible. He’s not used one bad word the whole time.”
As for Panasenko, “If he’s cursing in Russian, we wouldn’t even know,” she cracked.
While players have to try out for the Wolverines, potential host families have to make the cut with Makar. As a mother of hockey players and a longtime manager of youth teams, she knows well the impact leaving home can have on an adolescent athlete.
“Hockey is a weird sport,” she said. “So many kids have to leave Alaska early. You always pray others will take care of your kid as their own. So that’s what I try and help provide for the Wolverine kids who are here and away from their families.”
Sometimes, high-level hockey’s tight-knit community eases that transition.
For Talon Sigurdson, his coach in Minnesota knew Anchorage billet parents Glen and Dawn Baileys through hockey circles. Their shared faith-based values made the transition a smooth one for the team’s leading scorer.
Similarly, Colton Friesen of Winnipeg, Manitoba, joined the Schmitz household because he had played with the son of Jen and John Schmitz on a team in Maine. When Hunter Schmitz decided to play for the Wolverines this season, he asked if his friend and former teammate could billet with them. Again, it was an easy match.
The vast majority of Anchorage players being billeted, however, are making the commitment without firmly established ties to the community. They are coming to Alaska hoping to build those bonds.
Jen Schmitz can vouch for the friendships that come from billeting.
“Hunter, when, he travels, he makes sure to stop in St. Louis to see his billet family and they’re like a second family to him,” she said. “We were just down there and stayed with them, and Colton’s family is here right now, his mom, dad and aunt, and they’re staying with us, and we’re doing all of Alaska and showing them around.”
“It’s just really cool the way it works out, and you end up having close families all over.”