There was a moment at the 2017 NHL Draft when Ash and Mandy Phillips might have been mistaken for Rino and Katja Hischier.
After New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero announced Nico Hischier as the No. 1 pick onstage at United Center in Chicago, television cameras panned to commotion in the seats. A group of people was cheering with such excitement that it was logical to assume they had to be related to the Switzerland-born teenager.
Well, not quite.
"We jumped up screaming and I think everybody thought we were his parents," Ash said. "The TV cameras zoomed in on us and our cellphones began to blow up because our friends began texting us to say we were on TV."
Mandy said, "We were so excited. I remember thinking this isn't even my son being drafted but I'm feeling this much emotion ... I cried. I can't imagine what the feeling might have been like for his real family."
Hischier's real family -- his parents, Rino and Katja, his sister, Nina, and brother, Luca -- was sitting backstage with him at the time of the announcement.
Ash and Mandy Phillips aren't related to the Hischiers, but you'd never know it if you saw them together. To Nico, they are his second family. For 10 months, Ash and Mandy, son Ethan and daughter Megan were the billet family for Hischier during 2016-17, housing him for his first season in North America, when he played for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
There's a good chance the Phillipses will be part of a similar scene at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas on June 22; remarkably, they are the billet family for another projected top-five pick this season, 18-year-old Filip Zadina.
In North America, billet families offer room and board to junior players who leave home to join elite teams in other towns, or in the case of players like Hischier, other countries.
"They were there when I needed something," said Hischier, 19. "They're awesome people."
Ash and Mandy, who have been married 21 years, have billeted Halifax players since 2012-13. During that time, they've provided a supportive environment for four players: Brian Lovell (Chateauguay, Quebec), for two seasons; Philippe Gadoury (Greenfield Park, Quebec), for two seasons (he crossed over one season with Lovell); Hischier; and Zadina, the newest star in Halifax. This is the first season in North America for the right wing, who is from the Czech Republic.
Ash, 49, and Mandy, 48, have been Halifax fans for 20 years and have attended most home games since moving to the Nova Scotia capital from Calgary seven years ago. Ash, from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, works full time as a portfolio manager for an industrial real estate company. Mandy, born in Wales, works part time as a caretaker for infants at a fitness facility.
Ethan, 16, attends South Kent School in Connecticut, where he's a standout for the varsity hockey team. He has committed to Quinnipiac University for 2020-21. Megan, 19, is a sophomore at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where she majors in business.
The Phillipses thought becoming a billet family would benefit Ethan, who at the time was a 10-year-old with ambitions of taking his game to another level. Little did he know he'd be exchanging texts with two elite prospects as they prepared for the NHL Draft.
"I look at these boys as my sons, and so much more now that Ethan has gone away to school," Mandy said. "Maybe Ethan one day will live with a billet family, and I hope he's treated well and included in all the family activities. We really do love it. It adds to our life and when you have the boys living with you it makes the Halifax games so much more exciting because if feels like you're watching your own out there."
Zadina said, "They would do anything for me. They're the best."
Being able to settle in with the right billet family is a major step for a European teenager looking to begin his life in North America. Ash and Mandy made that process seamless for Hischier and Zadina. But the Phillipses are one of 28 billet families for Halifax this season, including those on standby in case a family is not a great fit.
There are 60 teams spread over three leagues in the Canadian Hockey League, so there are many billet families assisting teams in the QMJHL, Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League.
"Sure, you have your friends who are player buddies and your coaches, but when you go home at the end of the day, while it would be great if Mom and Dad were there, your billet family is the next best thing," Halifax GM Cam Russell said.
Hischier did have a family member in Halifax with him for part of the season; Nina stayed in the Phillips home for three months to help with the transition.
While the billet process can be rewarding and fulfilling for the players, the families involved also forge a special bond with their hockey houseguests.
When the Phillips family decided to take in a player, the first order of business was meeting Halifax billet coordinator Stephen Sykes. A former Halifax Regional Police officer who retired in 2013, Sykes has been the coordinator for four years.
The Sykes family has been billeting Halifax players since 2000; they've had a total of 19 and keep in contact with most.
"The coordinator comes to your home and they have a chat with you," Mandy said. "They explain the process and needs of the player, and you're given the expectations as a billet family.
"We just want to give them a safe place where they can come to a happy home. A home with good food and warm beds."
Sykes said he recruits families that can provide a good home away from home.
"What we always try and do at our home is ensure that everything possible is done for the player so that they can focus on the task at hand," Sykes said. "We complete criminal and background checks and continual follow-ups with both the player and billets throughout the season. From time to time, players are relocated for one reason or another. The most common reason is incompatibility."
Here are some primary guidelines and responsibilities of a Halifax billet family:
1. Dedicated room.
The player must have his own room, which would include a double bed or larger (preferably queen size).
In the Phillips home, Ash said, "They get the whole basement and have a private room with a queen-size bed. They have a private bathroom, with heated floors and a waterfall shower. Hidden behind the oversized full-length mirror is a sauna that fits about four people. The basement has a 10-foot TV for watching sports and a pingpong table for challenging each other in a game with different hand-eye coordination. There have been some pretty competitive games and a lot of laughs."
2. Family-type meals.
"We provide the food, but they're responsible for their breakfast and lunch," Mandy said. "I'll do the pregame meal or supper and then the postgame meal. On game days, and after their afternoon nap, I'll prepare whatever they choose. It could be anything from chicken, rice, vegetables to a pasta bake. On nongame days, we will usually sit as a family around 5:30 or 6 and enjoy supper together.
"Nico's favorite dish was always sweet potato and chicken. Filip doesn't have a favorite dish. He loves everything I make."
3. Support, communication and understanding.
"It's not our role to coach them in any fashion," Ash said. "The only thing I have told them at times is that they're the envy of every little boy out there, so just have more fun than anybody else on the ice. Go out and love this game because you're so lucky to be playing it every single day."
Mandy said, "You can usually sense by the body language if a game has gone well or not. We don't bring it up or say anything unless they want to talk about it. When they come home after a game I'll have food on the counter. I might pat him on the back and say, 'Tough loss, but don't sweat it.'"
Set by the coaches, it generally is 10 or 11 p.m. Any player missing curfew is reported to the billet coordinator. Random curfew calls are made during the season.
It is provided for all school and hockey functions, but billets may be asked to provide assistance in emergency situations.
6. Educational assistance.
This is provided by the team's education adviser. The players do their work at a local school or university, or online.
"Sometimes people forget that these players are only 15-21 years of age and need all the encouragement and support that your own children require," Sykes said.
Ash taught Hischier how to drive a car.
"He got his Nova Scotia permit license (in October 2016), and for a young man just grasping the English language, that was quite an accomplishment," Ash said.
In Nova Scotia, a 17-year-old can drive with one passenger, who is considered a teacher.
"I did well, but because of the language it was tough, but I think I only had two mistakes on my written exam," Hischier said.
Ash said, "The big joke in the house was, I'd usually take out the car keys, jingle them and ask, 'Nico, want to go for a drive?' " We'd go out maybe four or five nights a week and he turned out to be a fantastic driver. As the season went on, he'd even use the drive-thru at Tim Hortons and order all the coffees. He knew all the lingo, too."
Hischier ultimately got his driver's license in Switzerland last summer.
"It was important to have such nice people as billets because this was my first time away from Switzerland and I'm playing overseas so they became my second family and we became really close," Hischier said. "I loved their dog, Rue, and their cat, Kermit. They're season ticket holders and were there every game."
Mandy said having Hischier as part of the family was special.
"When he first got here, there were words and phrases he didn't understand but we managed and within a couple of months his English was really good," she said. "Nico is just one of the nicest young men I've ever met. He's so polite, you can tell he comes from a really good family."
Ash allowed Hischier to pick out something from his closet to wear to the rink for the first few games of the season and taught him how to tie a tie. Mandy eventually took Hischier shopping for his first suit.
The Phillips family was invited to join the Hischiers in the days leading up to the 2017 NHL Draft. Nico made sure to invite his surrogate family to any big gathering.
"I remember going out to buy an NHL Draft sweatshirt to commemorate the occasion and Nina was frantically texting us and asking where we were since we were supposed to meet the staff of the New Jersey Devils with his family," Ash said. "We didn't even realize they had included us."
On the day Hischier was drafted, Ash wore a new pair of socks from the No. 99 Wayne Gretzky Collection, thinking they would bring Nico all the luck he would need to become the No. 1 pick.
"It's Gretzky, who I think is the greatest ever," Phillips said. "When I put on the socks, I took a photo and sent it to Nico and wrote, 'Just so you know, this is good luck coming your way.'"
After Nico was drafted No. 1 by the Devils, the Phillipses mailed Hischier a new pair of socks from the Gretzky Collection for luck. Hischier wore those socks in his first NHL game, a 4-1 win for the Devils against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 7.
Zadina is the current prodigy living with the Phillips family. He's No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of North American skaters, having finished seventh in the QMJHL with 82 points and tied for third with 44 goals this season for Halifax, which opened the playoffs Friday.
Knowing the positive experience Hischier had while living with the Phillips family, Zadina said his billet choice was logical.
"Two weeks before I left the Czech Republic for Halifax, they told me I'd be billeting with the same family as Hischier, and I was excited," said Zadina, who has never met Hischier. "Hischier is now playing in the NHL and one of the best young players in the League, so I certainly want to follow in his footsteps.
"Me and my billet family are always watching Nico on TV now when he plays for the Devils."
Zadina's mother, Andrea, spent 10 days with her son in the Phillips home in November.
"I learn a lot from watching a son speak to his mother and Filip has so much respect for her," Mandy said. "Every time I come through the door with the groceries, Filip is right there, asking me if I need help and taking the bags. He's just very considerate."
Mandy has tried to make sure that the players experience North American traditions.
"We celebrated Thanksgiving with both Filip and Nico, and had about 20 people at the table so that they could experience it," she said.
The Phillipses also had Zadina experience one other big family tradition: choosing and cutting down their 14-foot Christmas tree.
"It was a pretty heavy tree and you had to haul it and lift is up into the truck," Ash said. "Once we get it in the house, I have the boys up on the ladder cutting the long tree branches back to make the tree look nice. Both Nico and Filip did that for us."
Mandy also put together a Christmas stocking for each player with various small items inside.
"We really do try and make them feel like part of the family," Ash said.
Unlike Hischier, Zadina hasn't expressed as strong a desire to get a driver's permit.
"We don't pressure Filip at all about the driving," Ash said. "That's his choice and it's there for him."
Ash and three friends traveled to watch Hischier in person at the Devils' home game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 15. Hischier had a goal and two assists in the 5-2 win and was named First Star of the game.
"I'm so proud of Nico," Ash said of the center, who has 49 points (18 goals, 31 assists) in 75 games. "He's a fantastic young man off the ice, a good teammate, and a star on the ice. It was fantastic to see him play live in New Jersey at Prudential Center, and it was so cool to see how many Hischier jerseys are being worn."
Hischier said, "I think he was excited about coming to the game and I was really looking forward to seeing him again. I'm glad I was able to make it special."
After Hischier's big game, Ash texted Zadina, who had a home game with Halifax against Rimouski the following night.
"I told [Zadina] that Nico had three points and teased him that he better score at least three points against Rimouski," Ash said.
Zadina had four points (two goals, two assists) in a 12-5 win and was named the third star of the game.
Ethan and Megan Phillips said they've enjoyed having Hischier and Zadina around.
Though Ethan spent more time with Lovell and Gadoury because he was home more often then, he's had plenty of time with Hischier and Zadina when he's returned home on break from school.
"Megan could [not] care less about the hockey, really," Mandy said. "To her, Nico was 'the boy who lived in the house,' but they're good friends."
Hischier said of Megan, "She's quiet but was really nice. Megan and Ethan showed me around the area, a lot. I view them as my brother and sister, really."
Ethan won't soon forget going head-to-head with Hischier and Zadina in the garage, where his dad built a hockey rink. It included puckboard around the perimeter of the garage, a smooth, epoxy-based floor for shooting pucks, and a net. Ethan has spent many hours with Hischier or Zadina in the garage, each perfecting his shot.
"I went against him a few times in that room and, I have to be honest," Hischier said with a big grin, "he actually beat me a couple of times in a shooting competition we always had."
Ethan said, "We'd go in there and he's a lefty and I'm a righty so we would switch sticks and then try to [hit] all the corners. Nico would do it in about 10 shots with the wrong hand. It took me about 15-20 shots.
"I looked up to those guys, especially when I was younger, because one of my goals was to play junior hockey so it was cool to have such special players in my house."
Hischier and Zadina have maintained contact with Ethan via text. Hischier has even sent Ethan video to help boost his game.
"I talked to Nico a lot last year when I returned home from school after watching him play," said Ethan, a center. "He sent me some video to help improve my two-way game. He always stressed to me the importance of defense in your own zone, and that's an area that I really focused on this season at South Kent. My coach actually moved me from wing to center since I was doing so well in my own zone."
Ethan (5-foot-9, 145 pounds), eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft, has 68 points (31 goals, 37 assists) in 45 games this season.
"I think both Nico and Filip are so humble and I won't forget how they wanted to spend time with me and hang out. That meant a lot to me," Ethan said. "Skill-wise, Nico obviously is a great shooter with good hands. Filip's shot is just unbelievable. When we were shooting in the hockey room one night, he shot one that bent the post and toppled the net over."
Ethan said Ash and Mandy are great billet parents because they understand the needs of hockey players.
"From taking me rink to rink, I think they've seen how parents treat the kids and know what you need to do to help them get ready and provide support," Ethan said. "There are some billet families who don't have kids who play hockey or who aren't around the rink a lot, so they don't understand.
"My mom and dad know the mindset of the players and they give them their space. If they need encouragement, they'll provide a little motivation every so often."
Russell said he has been very pleased with each billet family that has played a part in the lives of the players over the years. He's glad the Phillipses have been a part of the billet program.
"As billet parents, we feel we can make a meaningful contribution to the growth of a young man," Ash said. "When I look at their success, I look at them much differently than an average fan. When we see them get hurt, or suffer any setback, it hurts. I don't [equate] goals and assists to the success; I look at how these young men will one day be fathers, husbands, teammates and good people in the community."
To that end, Ash said he has made it a point to instill manners and discipline in the players his family has billeted.
"I treat them like I would want someone to treat my son," he said. "I tell them to keep their dress shoes shined, hold the door for women, always stand up when shaking hands and look the individual in the eye. Another big rule is there are no hats allowed at the table during dinner. It was a rule that my father had and I maintain it in my house as respect to him. These boys are so successful in their hockey lives that I want to teach them simple respect and small areas of living a disciplined life."
Ash and Mandy said they are amazed at how Halifax can pinpoint such talented and respectful young men each season.
"Cam Russell is a phenomenal GM and does a great job finding first-class players," Ash said. "Bobby Smith owns the team and sets the example of being a responsible and classy owner. We are thrilled to be able to support such an organization."
Ash and Mandy welcome not only the player they are hosting, but his family members too. The Phillipses contact the player's family at least once a week.
"When Andrea Zadina was here in November, her English wasn't great, but we used Google Translate to communicate and sat there with the phone, spoke into it and listened for the translation," Ash said. "We even had Hischier's godfather, Kudi, over our house. We think of Nico and Filip more as people than hockey players."
After getting so close to the players, do the Phillipses find it difficult to start over after one leaves for his next team?
"While we certainly get close to the boys, we certainly realize we are just a short period of their hockey careers," Ash said. "We keep in touch and hope to remain friends in the future. New players bring new stories and new backgrounds which are fun too."
Ash and Mandy view just about every Devils game online to keep tabs on Hischier, watch all the Halifax road games to see Zadina when he isn't home, and follow Ethan, whose high school games are also streamed.
"I keep teasing Mandy that maybe we'll have to install three televisions because right now we're using a TV, laptop and iPad trying to keep track of all of them," Ash said.
The bonds Ash and Mandy have with these players go beyond hockey.
"I'm very proud of each of the boys and the way they live their lives and attempt to achieve their on-ice goals," Ash said. "We look at them as people first and foremost; we care for them and their families whether they become a NHL player or not. These young men are growing into adulthood and finding their way, but we're proud of them for who they are off the ice."
And the Phillips family may soon be proud to have helped two prospects on their way to being selected at or near the top of the draft.
"When we see the pain or joy in their face, we feel it as well," Ash said. "We're here for them during the good times and the difficult times."