By Derek Holtom

(Russell Banner)

The province-wide lockdown which forced the Manitoba Junior Hockey League to pause their 2020-21 season has left arenas across Manitoba empty and silent.

Yet coaches and general managers are still diligently doing what work they can while the season is paused. As well, players are getting creative in finding natural ice surfaces to skate on to keep their conditioning up. So for them, while the season is paused, they’re still involved in the winter sport they love, to some extent at least.

But what about the fans – how are they handling the shutdown? A lack of a good junior game to attend is just another kick in the teeth for Manitobans this year, as provinces and health authorities ask people to isolate at a time when the natural reaction would be to come together. And what better place to meet in the winter than at a junior hockey game?

And the lack of hockey is acutely felt in billet homes. Take Jean Betke, a billet mom who has had players staying with her for 17 years. A month ago she had three members of the Wolverines staying with her – Jacob Charko, Conrad Phillips and Colby Wolter. Now their rooms are empty, and she’s not sure when they’ll return.

Betke got involved with the Wolverines by request. It’s a new experience to become a billet family, but it was one she quickly came to appreciate.

“I was asked to do it, tossed it around, and then said I’ll try it for a year,” says Betke. “And I just fell in love with it.”

Betke lives by herself otherwise, so having a hockey billet (or three) in the house really liven things up, and those who have had teenage boys and young men under their roof can attest to.

“There’s a lot of action in the house, and guys coming over (to visit),” says Betke when asked what makes being a billet so enjoyable. “And it’s winter entertainment – because, well, you know what Manitoba winters are like.”

Cold and dark would be the correct answer to that question. Which is one reason people enjoy a good hockey game so much. It’s an excuse to get out of the house, see your friends, and enjoy the great Canadian winter pastime – even if it’s -30 C.

“It’s a social thing – you sit with certain people, and visit between periods,” says Betke. “You miss the social aspect of it as well.

“You miss it all terribly.”

Still, her first thoughts on the shutdown were not centred around her lack of entertainment, but on the players’ lack of chance to play the game they love.

“It’s very disappointing, and I felt more for the boys than I did as a fan,” she said. “It’s just terribly disappointing, but it is what it is – we just have to go with it.”

Betke adds being a billet mom has provided her with the chance to enjoy many long-term relationships with her former house guests, as well as her current ones.

“In fact I just had one who stopped in yesterday on his way back to Camrose, Alta.,” she said. “I’ve been talking to my billets as well.”

She does admit, though, that her grocery bill has gone down “immensely” since the players returned home. That means she hasn’t made as many tacos as she normally would – those are the players’ favourites.

As for when she expects hockey (and the rest of our lives) to return to some semblance of normal, Betke is hopeful the season will resume, but she already remains cautious and a realist.

“I’m trying to stay optimistic, our numbers are going down in Manitoba,” she said. “It may not be Jan. 2, but I think it will go again.”