By John Toole
---- — Families often take a puppy or a kitten into their homes.
In Southern New Hampshire at this time of year, sometimes they take in a 6-foot young man with a hard slap shot.
The Northern Cyclones, an American junior hockey club based in Hudson, brings in players from throughout the country and around the globe — from Sweden, Russia and Italy.
They are chasing more than a puck. They are looking for a chance to catch the eye of head coaches like Dick Umile or Jerry York, get a scholarship offer and strap on their skates for one of the nation’s elite college hockey programs.
“We’ve sent players to UMaine, Merrimack, UConn in Division 1,” Cyclones co-owner and director Bill Flanagan said.
Before they get there, they will spend hours here refining their game at their home rink. But they need a place to stay while they are passing through Southern New Hampshire.
So, people like Beth and Peter Darasz of East Derry will take players into their homes for a few months, making them part of the family.
This season, it’s Dalton Carter, 19, from Ohio and Spencer Martin, 18, from Maine.
“We had always kicked around the idea of having a foreign exchange student, but we never got our act together,” Beth Darasz said.
Their own children had left home by the time her husband came across a notice in the newspaper, looking for local families to host hockey players.
She is a big hockey fan. He is mildly interested in hockey. But they found the idea appealing.
She missed baking for the kids and going to games. He missed having kids going in and out of the house.
So, they placed the call to Denise Dolloff, whose husband, Wes, is a co-owner of the Cyclones, answering her plea for help.
“Peter called Denise. She said, ‘We have one. He can come over and start living with you,’” Darasz recalled. “‘He will be there in, like, four minutes.’”
They have not regretted their decision.
“Our home feels fuller,” she said. “We like that.”
The players pretty much are home for supper, sleep and study between practices and games.
If they ever give a Lady Byng trophy for good sportsmanship at home, they would be up for the honor.
“They have all been very polite, surprisingly reserved for hockey players,” Darasz said. “But remember, these are teenagers.”
Darasz had to remind the players not to leave food out in the basement.
“We had a mouse problem,” she said.
Another surprise was the laundry.
“Be prepared for your electric bill to zoom over the top,” Darasz said.
Flanagan said the players are very appreciative of their host families and understand what this means for them.
“They are getting an opportunity to get an education,” he said.
Families get something else. Flanagan said it is a tremendous experience and a special reward.
“You’re helping them realize a dream,” Flanagan said.
The Dolloffs have welcomed 17 players into their Windham home over the years.
This year, they are hosting Johnathan Appell, 19, a defenseman from Texas, and Kevin Valenti, 19, a forward from New York.
“I love them,” Denise Dolloff said. “They are awesome, really good kids.”
The players who stay with the Dolloffs love her, too, and always think of their “hockey mom.” One of the former Cyclones and his girlfriend spent a few days with the Dolloffs at Thanksgiving.
“On Mother’s Day, there are a million messages on my cellphone,” she said. “They all keep in touch with me.”
Zach Popp does.
“I talk with them almost every day,” Popp said of the Dollofs. “They’re like my parents now.” .
He is a freshman forward and business major at Plattsburgh State in New York. Last year, he was a member of the Cyclones.
“They helped me get where I am now,” Popp said. “My family couldn’t afford to pay for an apartment for me. I needed a place to stay and this was the best option.”
These players are not grown-ups, no matter how big they look on the ice.
“These kids are kids,” Dolloff said. “You can’t be really regimented if you’re going to take in a hockey player. You have to be willing to let them be part of your family.”
She thought they would be very mature until about five minutes into the arrival of the first player, when he discovered her son, Mitch, playing video games.
“The second he saw my son’s video games, the two of them were playing,” she said.
Dolloff said the players become “brothers” to the kids at home.
“When they move in, it takes a week to get used to them,” she said. “Then, it’s like they’ve always been there.”
The Cyclones try to place two players in a home. The buddy system provides them company, as well as a traveling companion to games and practices.
There’s a $300 monthly subsidy, but Darasz said that barely covers the groceries.
So, this isn’t about the money, but the joy of the experience.
Dolloff checks out the host families to make sure the kids are in a safe place. She tries to find homes within a half hour of the rink.
Flanagan said a host family is preferable to placing young men that age in an apartment of their own.
Popp has some advice for host families.
“Just be supportive. A lot of things go on at the rink, maybe you’re not getting enough ice time. The college transition is overwhelming,” he said. “Don’t even bring up hockey. Just have a normal conversation with the players.”
Darasz finds herself going to hockey games to support the players, which she clearly enjoys.
Host families who choose to follow their guests will see some of the best young players in junior hockey.
“Very, very few kids get scouted in high school anymore,” Dolloff said.
She recalled one of the players had left his local school – he was their best player – to join the Cyclones instead.
“These are the more talented kids,” Dolloff said.
When the Cyclones host a hockey showcase, where players display their skills, 30 or 40 scouts will attend, including a couple from the National Hockey League, Dolloff said.