Being thousands of miles away from home can be daunting – especially while in college and playing a sport.
The Home Away Parents program attempts to combat that by helping Cyclone Hockey’s players.
“We feel that they need a home environment when they’re at college,” said Rita Thorson, director of the program.
Of Cyclone Hockey’s current 25 players, two are from Iowa. A total of 17 players are from states that border Iowa. The other six come from farther distances — Alaska, California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Canada.
Even for players in surrounding states, the program is appreciated. Junior defenseman Max Olson is from Minnesota and enjoys time with his Home Away family.
“It’s very helpful. It’s just kind of like another resource we have,” Olson said. “I’m sure my Home Away family, I think, would do anything for us. They’re super nice, so it’s like kind of that lifeline you need.”
Players are paired up with local couples in the program. A family will typically be assigned one or two players — three in some cases.
The program stems from the idea of the traditional billet families in junior hockey. Teenage players live with a billet family while they play since they are not close to home. Home Away Parents and billet families are largely comparable, as they support players in similar ways. The main difference is that players live with their billet families and do not live with Home Away families.
Apart from that difference, the concept is the same: taking care of hockey players while they are away from home.
“A lot of the Home Away [parents] remain very close to their players well after they graduate, so it’s certainly a very positive thing,” said Coach Jason Fairman.
Since the players on Cyclone Hockey come from junior leagues, Fairman said the program is an added bonus and is not used during recruiting because players are familiar with the concept. Players may find out about the program during their recruitment visit, but it is not a main point.
Like Olson, junior forward Dylan Goggin is from Minnesota. Even though he wasn’t far from home, Goggin recalls his first year in college and his Home Away family showing him around Ames, Iowa.
“My freshman year, it was just nice to kind of have like a second family, second set of parents down here,” Goggin said.
Although the program started over ten years ago, Rita Thorson is in her second year as director. She and her husband, Scott Thorson, joined the program five years ago.
The year prior to joining, they bought season tickets and attended all the home games. Through that, the Thorsons met the previous director of the program. They learned about the program and joined the following year. Rita became director three years later.
“You get out of it what you put into it, so I put everything into it to get to know them and know their likes and dislikes,” Rita said. “I try to involve myself in their lives so that they can trust me and know that they can give me a call anytime, day or night.”
With this being only the second year in her current position, Rita has already begun trying to enhance the program, creating a Cyclone Hockey Home Away Parents Facebook page.
Her goal is to expand the program, by next year even, to cover both the Division I team and the Division II team. The current 16 sets of couples isn’t enough for both, with Scott saying that it would just take more people to make that happen.
However, bigger events planned by Rita and Scott include both teams, such as potlucks and treat nights. The potlucks occur twice a season where parents cook for the players on both teams, gathering all for a meal.
This season, Rita started inviting the cheerleaders to the potlucks.
Treat nights happen once every month after a home game. Parents bake homemade goods and bring them to the rink for players to pick up after games.
Outside of those two events, it is up to each of the families to decide their engagement with players. It varies from player to player and family to family based on need and schedules.
The Thorsons, along with some other families, will put together treat bags for away games. In the bags are snacks for the players to take with them on the bus. In addition to the treat bags for their assigned players, the Thorsons bring extra treats for the whole team.
Rita and Scott Thorson strive to create a stable environment and family feel for their players. To help with that, they usually have their three players over for dinner once a week. They also celebrate birthdays and holidays with their players and have even invited them to family gatherings.
The Thorsons also do most of the team’s laundry, washing socks, jerseys, etc. at their own home.
Even though they have a son of their own in college, that hasn’t stopped them from supporting the players.
“I just enjoy being a mom so [I] figured ‘why not spread the love?’” Rita said.
Rita’s actions go beyond planned events and tasks — as she brought medicine to Olson when he was sick last December.
Similar to Olson, Goggin sees his Home Away family at least once a week. He said they are very supportive and are always there to answer questions or to provide a home cooked meal.
“Having a Home Away family just kind of adds to the value and the comfort of being in Ames,” Goggin said.
Even though junior forward Ray Zimmerman’s family isn’t as involved, he still sees the value and benefits of the program. He attends the bigger events and is impacted by the program.
The scope of the program goes beyond just helping the Cyclone players. It affects the youth players in Ames, Iowa, as some of the parents in the program have children who play hockey.
“It’s connecting us with the younger players,” Zimmerman said. “Players make bonds with those kids. They see them in the rink, and it kind of just makes the whole Ames Ice Rink more of a community.”
Rita Thorson does her best to pair up a family with a youth player to a Cyclone player of the same position.
She has also paired up players and families from similar areas. For example, one of the couples is from Canada and wished to be paired with a player who is also from Canada.
A family may also be randomly assigned a player.
“Sometimes, it gives a young kid someone to look up to, a positive mentor,” Fairman said.
Of the 16 sets of couples in the program, nine have joined after the Thorsons. One of those couples is Stephanie Clark and her spouse, Eliseo De León, as they just joined the program this season.
They started going to Cyclone Hockey games about ten years ago and ended up sitting by the Thorsons.
Clark and De León had started supporting the cheerleaders and that morphed into them joining the program. Even though they have been hockey fans for a long time, Clark said joining the program has made them feel closer to the game and gives them more of a rooting interest.
“We’re feeling more connected to the game having somebody specific to cheer for,” Clark said.