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Gophers Hockey: Before heading to his second WJC Camp, Ryan Collins had another reunion

Collins got the opportunity to meet with the family he spent two years with in Ann Arbor before coming to Minnesota, highlighting the important role billet families play in the lives of hockey players.

Ryan Collins (6) is wearing Team USA garb this week as he tries to make his second consecutive WJC team.
Ryan Collins (6) is wearing Team USA garb this week as he tries to make his second consecutive WJC team.
Tom Sorenson

Ending Saturday's game with a visit from his billet family was a fitting way for Minnesota sophomore Ryan Collins to conclude the season's first half.

December is a busy time of year for the defenseman. He still has plenty of reunions on deck this month.

Collins returned to Ann Arbor last weekend, a place where the Bloomington, MN native spent two seasons playing with the US Development Program, to face the University of Michigan. He heads to Boston this week for his second consecutive preliminary US World Juniors camp. If he makes the team again, Collins will go to Helsinki, Finland for the tournament.

And there are school finals to take in between as the semester comes to a close.

"I know the experience is good. Having been there last year I know a little bit about what to expect. It's a new group this year, it's a new group of players and it's a challenge every year to make the team," he said about the World Juniors.

Standing a simple 6'5" before skates, Collins' role has grown on the ice. The 19 year-old went from playing on defensive pairings with upperclassmen Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei to being relied upon more like one. His minutes and roles have increased with his previous linemates departing.

Collins and both Skjei, who now plays for the New York Rangers, and Minnesota head coach Don Lucia have all noted throughout the end of his freshmen and beginning of sophomore season that Collins' confidence on the ice and moving the puck has grown.

That goes a long way for Collins to once again represent his country.  He is one of nine defensemen in camp with seven expected to go to the World Juniors.

"For Ryan to be effective he needs to be in that shutdown type-mode, defensive defenseman, be a first pass kind of guy," said Lucia about Collins, who has three assists this season. "I think he looks a little more comfortable on the offensive blue line than a year ago and anytime you can wear that USA sweater it's a big deal."

Before he left for the Boston camp that began Tuesday, the 212 lbs Collins excitedly got to return to Ann Arbor and historical Yost Arena. While with the Development Program, he earned a gold medal in the 2014 U-18 World Championship and was able to represent the United States in several other competitions.

Just as much, coming back is important. To him, Ann Arbor is a special place with some special people.

"It means a lot. Every time I get to go back to Ann Arbor there's good memories. I get to see fresh faces," said Collins. "I get to see my billet family, which is nice. You don't get to see them too often."

Billet families play a major yet under acknowledged role in the lives of teenage hockey players. They open their homes and care for those away from home, becoming second families for 15 to 20 year-olds. That feeling is reciprocated by the players.

Many Gopher players have had at least one as more and more leave the state for junior hockey. Three on this year's roster, including Collins, played for the United States program and got the experience.

In Collins' case, he went to high school in Ann Arbor during that time. He was growing up there during formative years, being a normal teenager and doing things such as playing street hockey with his little billet brother, who is now a freshman in high school.

"My little billet brother is growing up. That's kind of scary, but it'll be fun to see him," he said.

They are close enough where Collins biological family last weekend stayed with his billet one.

He had hoped to visit with his billet family before the weekend began, but was unable to get the time. Friday's attempt to meet up at Yost postgame didn't happen. A couple players were able to make it happen with friends and family, but not Collins because of a quick exit after being beaten by Michigan 8-3.

"We wanted to recover and get back to the hotel, to get a bite to eat and get ready for today," he said after Saturday's game.

24 hours later the game went better. It didn't work the first time although the meaningful meeting happened in the end. That's what the Gophers, entering the second half of the season first place in the Big Ten, hope to keep.

Minnesota held onto a third period lead to hand the Wolverines only its second home loss of the season. Collins, meanwhile, cooled down and took care of postgame obligations before finally got the chance to hug, see and meet with his billet family, two groups back together inside a building that has hosted over forty years of hockey.

Everyone grows up, which scary or not isn't a bad observation from a growing player trying to do the same over the next month and more.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --