Landparents Provide Stable Home Away From Home for Whalers
Photo - (from left) Mitchell Heard, Sue Stechschulte, Garrett Meurs and Dan Stechschulte. Photo by Rena Laverty
PLYMOUTH, MI - Plymouth Whalers General Manager and Head Coach Mike Vellucci always points to an integral but often overlooked group at the Whalers post-season banquet:
“Our landparents are essential to our success,” Vellucci says. “We couldn’t function without them. They help our players every day, acting like parents. Our billets assist our team in so many ways that aren’t seen. But our players appreciate their efforts and so does the coaching staff.”
The Plymouth Whalers come into this off-season looking for a few more good landparents.
Whaler players – who range in age from 15-to-21 years-old – all live with families in the Plymouth-area.
The Whalers report to training camp at the end of August, start the regular season during the third week of September and - outside of a ten-day break around Christmas – follow a regimented life style of school, games, practice, travel and other team obligations lasting until April or May.
Younger players go to high school at the Plymouth-Canton Education Park and often finish the school year in May before returning home for the summer.
Although some landparents house one Whaler, others bring in a pair of players.
Dan and Sue Stechschulte of Canton house veteran Plymouth Whalers Garrett Meurs (three years) and Mitchell Heard (two years). The Stechschultes have two daughters - Kelly (20) away at college - and Riley (14).
Meurs is from Ripley, ON while Heard comes from Bowmanville, ON. Both players are roughly five hours away from home.
“We had Garrett first and brought in Mitchell when he first joined the Whalers (in 2009)….he was over here anyway,” said Dan Stechschulte. “And then when he joined the Whalers the following year, he came here full-time.”
Like linemates on the ice, Meurs and Heard have fit in well with the Stechschultes.
“It’s been a good situation, especially for our younger daughter,” said Stechschulte. “It’s like having two instant big brothers. There’s plenty of joking around and give and take. But the truth is, they look out for one another. Having Mitchell and Garrett in the house has been a good situation.”
Each year, the Stechschultes have multiple Thanksgivings in their house – Canadian Thanksgiving (second Monday in October) and American Thanksgiving – and have more than two Whalers over in the celebration.
Dan Stechschulte feels it is essential to try to match a player’s personality with his potential family.
“Each family has a distinct personality,” he said. “If a family has an easy-going personality, then it helps to have a player that’s the same way.”
The Whalers’ busy schedule gives the players a regimented life-style that keeps them busy nearly every day, a fact not lost on Stechshculte.
“The Whalers play almost every Friday and Saturday – with travel - and practice nearly every day they aren’t playing," Stechschulte said. “Living with a Plymouth Whaler can take over your life.”
It may seem like a risk to open your house to a Plymouth Whaler, but Stechschulte sees a greater reward.
“If someone has kids that are six, seven or eight years old and looking to house a player, I’d recommend it,” he said. “The player becomes an instant brother and a member of the family.”
So much so - in the case of Meurs and Heard - that when they aren’t around, there’s a void in the Stechschulte house.
The fact that Heard is in a good situation in Plymouth is a comfort to his mother, Sheri.
“I never have to worry about Mitchell seeing as he has two wonderful stepparents in Plymouth,” Ms. Heard said. “He is a lucky young man to have such wonderful people who care for him…not just as a player they took in, but they’ve treated him as a part of the family. I will always be grateful to Dan and Sue for all the love and support they gave to our son.”
Typically, the Whalers have two players each season from Europe, courtesy of the annual Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. Center Rickard Rakell comes from Sollentuna, Sweden (8-9 hours away) and is a first round pick of the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks.
Rakell has lived for the past two years with Steve and Suzanne Kowalkoski in Canton, along with sons Tom (14) and Ben (18).
In past seasons, the Kowalkoskis have billeted Chris Terry (from Brampton, ON), Ryan Hayes (from Syracuse, NY), James Livingston (Newmarket, ON) and Matt Caria (Sault Ste. Marie, ON)
No matter who has lived in his house, Kowalkoski feels the adjustment to each player has been smooth – so smooth, that relationships remain intact.
“In fact, Ryan will be moving back in when Rickard leaves,” Kowalkoski said. “He’s stayed every summer since leaving (in 2009). Once a billet, always a billet, I guess.
“We have a finished lower level in our home, which is the Whaler Area. The players that live with us have their own bedroom, bathroom and TV area. It’s really set up just for them. Suzanne and I say, it’s our home – but it’s their space. Suzanne often says, you open your home and your heart soon follows, because you do get close to the kids.”
Whalers living with the Kowalkoskis are included in family activities quickly.
“We’ve found they become very engaged in the family and become one of your (surrogate) sons,” Kowalkoski said. “Ben and Tom have embraced the Whalers, and vice-versa. Whatever we do as a family, our Whalers – if they don’t have something else going – always join us. I think they enjoy that.”
The Kowalkoski’s adjustment to housing a player from Sweden was smooth.
“The biggest adjustment was the language,” Kowalkoski said. “He wasn’t used to American slang, but he learned very quickly. Other than that, Rickard really wanted to be here and play in Plymouth. When a player wants to be here, and understands this is his stepping stone to the next level, it makes the transition easy for the billets.”
The Kowalkoski are in contact with parents Rolle and Annika Rakell, who have visited several times over the past two seasons.
The Rakells appreciate the care of the Kowalkoskis towards their son.
“We are all very happy that Rickard came to Steve and Suzanne as they have treated him like their own son,” said Rolle Rakell. “We have gotten friends for life in them. As parents it has been tough living far away, but since Rickard is happy as we know speaking to him via Skype several times a week, we couldn’t ask for more.
"We are so thankful for their great hospitality and participation.”
If you are interested in becoming a Plymouth Whalers billet family, please go online to: