Life

RoughRiders host family helps hockey players reach their goals

Roughriders defenseman Darian Gotz turns to share a laugh with host father Doug Banowetz (right) while eating dinner wit
Roughriders defenseman Darian Gotz turns to share a laugh with host father Doug Banowetz (right) while eating dinner with the family at their home in Robins on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Janelle and Doug Banowetz of Robins knew they wanted to open their home to students and were considering hosting a foreign exchange student.

But they ended up hosting hockey players.

Janelle Banowetz, 48, said she read an article in The Gazette about a host family for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders USHL hockey team. She applied.

Twelve years and dozens of players later, the Banowetzes now are hosting another two players, forward Donte Lawson and defenseman Darian Gotz.

“We’re sports fans, and it just kind of fit to do something like this,” said Doug, 49. “Just to give the opportunity for these guys, to give them somewhere to live while they’re pursuing their dream.”

Since RoughRiders players range in age from 16 to 20, some of the players they’ve hosted were still in high school and have attended Kennedy, Washington and Xavier high schools in Cedar Rapids and Linn-Mar High School in Marion.

Lawson, 19, and Gotz, 19, have graduated from high school and have committed to playing for Bemidji State University and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, respectively.

“Most of the players on the team, we’re committed to going to colleges already, so they send us here for one or two years to develop and get stronger,” Gotz said.

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Both players are originally from Minnesota. While their families try to make it to Cedar Rapids once or twice a month, they appreciate having a home away from home during the RoughRiders season.

“It’s obviously a lot easier because we’re not full grown-ups yet, so it’s good to still have parent figures in your life,” Gotz said. “Kind of slowly adjusting to being away from your family while still having that close relationship with two adults, I think, is really good.”

“We get to be a kid for a few more years,” Lawson said.

While their commitment to the RoughRiders takes up most of their time — between practices, community service and 62 games in a season — both Lawson and Gotz are taking online college classes, “just to stay up on school and give you something to do away from the rink,” Lawson said.

The Banowetzes have a 24-year-old son, Bryan, who teaches at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and an 18-year-old son, Nick, a senior at Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids. Nick has enjoyed growing up with surrogate big brothers.

“It’s pretty cool to have people to look up to growing up my whole life, in sports and outside of sports,” Nick said. “It’s fun to play with them (in the game room) downstairs and stuff. The first year, I brought one for show and tell.”

While he’s now of an age where he and the players are friends, there were a few years Nick learned the drawbacks of having several older brothers.

“Nick got picked on a lot when he was younger,” Doug said. “It was very entertaining.”

Players are encouraged to help out with chores around the house, and every host family receives a monthly stipend to help pay for expenses like groceries, which can add up when feeding teenage boys.

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“In the past, when Nick was in eighth grade, we housed three kids. … You’re making chicken breasts, and you’re making 13 at a time,” Janelle said.

Janelle has spent the past four years as the RoughRiders’ housing coordinator. She narrows down host family applications by distance from the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena — “when they get home from away games, you don’t want them driving much at night” — then she and Coach Mark Carlson do a home visit to get to know the families so they can make the best player match.

“I go through a process in August. I have the players fill out forms for me. It gives me kind of an idea of their likes and all that kind of stuff,” Janelle said. “Plus we have tryout camps during the summer, so I get to know a lot of the kids face-to-face, so that helps Coach and I decide the best place for them.”

The USHL hockey season runs from September until April, and sometimes into May if the team makes it to the playoffs.

While there are occasionally more host families available than players, usually by the end of the season, all of the homes are filled because of trades and new players coming to Cedar Rapids.

Two host families have been participating since the start of RoughRiders hockey some 20 years ago. Many families have hosted multiple years. Janelle says she’s always accepting applications for new host families.

“We generally have one to two new families every year, and some families retiring, so it all just evens out,” she said.

The Banowetzes keep in touch with all of their former players. A couple of them have been drafted by professional hockey teams, with another playing professionally in Germany.

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“We try to make it a point to go visit, go to a college game,” Janelle said. “We’ve been to Boston, we’ve been to Notre Dame, Colorado, Vermont. So it’s fun to travel around and see them play in their college career, too.”

While Nick’s senior year of high school has kept them busy with football and baseball, the family tries to make it to every RoughRiders game. “Otherwise, if we can’t make it, we usually try to watch it on HockeyTV,” Janelle said.

Their enjoyment of each other radiates from both the players and the family.

“They definitely make it feel like we’re at home,” Lawson said.

“Janelle and Doug are amazing people,” Gotz said. “And obviously Nick is a super good guy, and getting to know his friends, it makes everything easier. Hockey is one thing, but it’s good to have a life away from hockey. And they’re super tight, and my family back home is super tight, so it’s really cool to get in with them. It’s just a really easy transition.”

Added Janelle: “I think one of the things that I like about the program, especially if you’re on the fence … if things don’t work out, it’s not like you have to have them. We want things to work out, we want to have the best fit possible. But I think that’s why we went this route instead of a foreign exchange student. We wanted to make sure we were comfortable during this whole process, too.”

Anyone interested in becoming a host family can email Janelle Banowetz at housing@roughridershockey.com

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