A den away from home

Published 8:00 am Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bruins players (left to right) Joe Siers, Nicholas Lehr and Ilya Arkalov play a game of pool in the basement of the home of Bob and Paulette Cummings of Austin. The Cummings host two Bruins players during the season and many players often stop by to hang out. - Rocky Hulne/rocky.hulne@austindailyherald.com

It’s a typical night at the home of Bob and Paulette Cummings of Austin.

Bob and Paulette are relaxing upstairs, while their basement is filled with Austin Bruins players, who are playing pool, video games or just relaxing.

While some people would be a little uneasy with a house full of hockey players in their late teens to early 20s, the Cummings, who are one of 20 host families for Austin Bruins, are right at home.

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“The door is pretty much a rotating door and there’s kids coming here all the time and that’s a really good feeling for us,” Paulette said. “We know that they’re good kids, because they wouldn’t be on the team if they weren’t. I would encourage any one who enjoys kids, to (host a Bruins player). It’s the experience of a lifetime for us.”

Bob and Paulette Cummings of Austin have three sons who played hockey growing up and now the Cummings have hosted Austin Bruins players for the last two years. Pictured (left to right): Grant Williams, Bob Cummings, Paulette Cummings, and Chase McDonald.

A background in hockey

The Cummings’ were not always a hockey family, but that all changed when current state senator Dan Sparks baby-sat for their three boys many years ago. Sparks brought over his hockey stick and from there things changed forever for Bob and Paulette’s sons Bryan, Brad and Brent.

“From that day on, we were a hockey family,” Paulette said. “We had three boys and we went everywhere together as a pod. It’s been in our blood for quite some time.”

All three boys went on to play for Austin High School and two of them kept playing after high school.

When the Austin Bruins came to town two years ago, Brent, who played on the last Packer boys hockey team to make it to state and played in the USHL, called his parents and told them to take on the task of becoming a host family.

Brent lived with a host family when he played in Topeka, Kan., and he still kept in contact with that family.

Brent actually played against Bruins head coach Chris Tok, who was an assistant coach in the USHL. Tok remembered the name when the Cummings volunteered to be a host family.

“I remember Brent skated well and played hard,” Tok said. “I think the Cummings were happy that someone helped host their son and now they want to give back. That’s a pretty good feeling.”

Providing a place to live

Bob and Paulette must have done something right in their first year of hosting as Chase McDonald, a forward from Salt Lake City, Utah, is living with them for a second straight season.

He said the Cummings’ provide a home that allows him to relax and recover in between his work and practice schedules.

“Living with the Cummings is incredible,” he said. “They had three sons who played hockey so they kind of know what we’re going through. They’re welcoming and they made me feel at home right away. You could say it’s kind of a parental relationship, I eat dinner with them a few times a week and we’ll talk about hockey and life.”

McDonald said knowing he had a good home to live in made it much less stressful to leave home and head to Austin this season, compared to his first year with the Bruins.

The Cummings are also hosting Grant Williams, a first year forward from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He said the Cummings’ basement, which is pretty much a hang-out area for many team members has helped him find his way on his new team.

“You like to get acquainted with all of your teammates and you like to hang out as much as possible,” he said. “We have each other to rely on and that definitely strengthens the team.”

Far from home

While 14 of the Bruins are from Minnesota, 11 of them are from out of the state and two of them are from Europe. For those who live far away like McDonald and Williams, the eight-month season can be tough to handle.

Besides their 10-day Christmas break, which is their only lengthy time off all season, most players who live far away may see their family once or twice per season.

“I don’t see them as much as I’d like to, but I still do get to see them,” McDonald said of his family. “Trying to play at the next level keeps you going.”

Williams said missing time with family is just part of the reality of playing junior hockey. He said it helps that everyone on the team is in the same situation.

“When you love it, it’s not hard at all. It’s really easy and everybody here has the same goals,” Williams said. “I’ve learned a lot of life skills and it’s all a new experience.”

Bob said he tried to help McDonald and Williams as much as possible with tasks like helping them fix their cars. He said that he and Paulette, who receive a monthly stipend for groceries for their players, don’t have to worry so much about being counselors as they have to worry about keeping their fridge full.

“I think they get homesick a little bit, but their schedules are so busy,” he said. “They don’t have a whole lot of time off and they’re pretty self sufficient. Our hardest part is keeping up with milk, we go through a lot of milk in a week.”

A different ball game

Just like the Bruins players have to adjust to a life away from home, they have to adjust to a totally different style of hockey. Most players were the best player on their high school team or even conference, and now they must get used to playing with a different style.

McDonald struggled to find competition when he was in Utah. One of the teams he played on had just three or four guys from Utah on the squad.

“The high school hockey (in Utah) is really, really bad. I did dominate there, but then I played U18 AAA which is comparable to competitive high school in Minnesota,” McDonald said. “(Coming to the NAHL) is a big transition, but it’s a lot fun. All we do is pretty much work out and play hockey. Just living the dream.”

The Bruins players have a curfew of 11 p.m. and other strict rules to keep them out of trouble. Tok said those rules keep his team in line.

“It’s not life or death if they’re not there at exactly 11 p.m. But usually trouble happens later than that,” he said. “You’ve got to have a solid night’s sleep when you’re here and you’re trying to get better.”

A lasting impression

The Cummings have been very impressed with the Bruins organization so far. They’ve appreciated the players in their homes and they enjoy watching the games.

“To see the city of Austin come and support the team like they have has been outstanding,” Paulette said. “I never thought they’d draw the fans like they have. It’s really been a lot of fun and I can see their game shifts when the crowd gets into it.”

Things got even better for Paulette on this past Mother’s Day when she heard from her former host players as well as her own sons. Her and Bob plan on staying in touch with all of the players who have lived under their roof.

“I think it’s been good for them and I know it’s been good for us,” Paulette said of hosting players.

Tok said that players’ behavior in their host’s homes can have as much impact on the team’s public perception as how they act on the ice. He also gave credit to those who step up and take players in.

“We really appreciate the work and time they put in by opening their doors to people who they may not know,” Tok said. “We definitely want to thank them.”