Feeding the Penguins: The hockey team gradually is eating better and more healthfully


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Tanner Glass of the Pittsburgh Penguins eats more for breakfast than most people eat all day. On a typical morning, the 30-year-old left-winger eats oatmeal enriched with chia seeds, coconut, "Hemp Hearts," and heavy cream. It's served alongside three organic eggs with a side dish of both bacon and sausage. He chases his meal with a smoothie of blended banana, blueberry, kale, avocado, protein powder, and cow's colostrum. He said, "It's a whole lot of breakfast."

The stereotype of hockey players stuffing their faces post-game with a fully-loaded pizza or a plate heaping with steak and carbs still lingers -- quite literally so in Pittsburgh, where Downtown restaurant Meat & Potatoes is a favorite after-game haunt of the Penguins -- but a new appreciation of gastronomy and nutrition is slowly emerging.

According to defenseman Brooks Orpik, that transition began when left-winger Gary Roberts was traded to the Penguins in February 2007. "He was pretty disgusted by our pre-game meals and what we'd eat on planes. We'd have ice cream sundae stations before the game. There was soda everywhere we went, and so many processed foods. It was gross."

Still, change comes slowly in a sport as celebrated for its traditions as it is for the results on the daily score sheet. As the Penguins prepare for a run at the Stanley Cup, a couple of players and an ambitious coach are leading the way toward improving the team's culinary culture.

Longevity

Mr. Orpik, who "was not a very healthy eater in college and early in my career," quickly embraced Mr. Robert's philosophy. He knew he wanted to extend his career for as long as possible, and recognized that food was going to play a big part in achieving that goal.

He and his wife do their best to stick to an organic, whole foods diet. This is a rather straightforward -- and enjoyable -- task for the Orpiks in the offseason; they own a house on Holly Hill Farms, a vegetable and herb farm located just outside of Boston. All it takes is a short walk to the end of the driveway, and they can pick up a daily supply of veggies from the farm's produce stand.

"You get pretty spoiled eating like that," he said.

Although coming back to Pittsburgh from a summer on the farm takes some adjustment, he said he's found his rhythm over the years. He and his wife split the shopping duties -- he said the East End Food Co-op, where he shops once a week, is an especially good place to find the food he prefers -- and she's the cook.

"She's always trying new dishes," he said. A recent favorite was a winter salad of spinach, candied walnuts, goat cheese, avocado, pear, grilled chicken and citrus vinaigrette. A local standout that makes frequent appearances on the Orpik family table is Jamison lamb, raised in Latrobe. "We eat a lot of their lamb," he said.

Dessert at the Orpik house is typically yogurt and berries. "That's a great dessert."

Mr. Orpik said that he rarely eats out while the team is home. Eating on the road is a necessity, of course, and sometimes it's a challenge. "When you eat out you can't control that sort of thing," he said.

He said that he's been playing in the NHL long enough that he has established favorite places to eat in every city and that he is also always on the lookout for new restaurants that fit his needs.

Road-to-table

Tanner Glass is the most adventurous eater on the team. "Some guys get into their routines, but I like to try new things and get out of my bubble a little bit," he said. He spends a fair amount of time online finding farm-to-table restaurants before the team heads on the road.

In fact, Mr. Glass has taken on a leadership role of sorts; he sherpas a group of five players (Brandon Sutter, Joe Vitale, Robert Bortuzzo, and Chuck Kobasew) to restaurants on Penguins road trips. At the start of the season, the players decided they would rotate restaurant selection, but that didn't quite work out as planned. "By the time we'd get to a city I'd already have a place where I wanted to go, so I'd text the boys and say, 'Hey, can we go here?' Well, I picked four out of the first five [restaurants], so they just let me take over."

That decision has led to a lot of memorable meals, no small matter for a group of players who spend a significant amount of time away from home. When they traveled to Philadelphia earlier this season to play the Flyers, for example, Mr. Glass tracked down a table at Talula's Garden, where executive chef Sean McPaul cooks seasonal dishes such as Winter Minestrone, a powerhouse of a soup that's made with handmade bow-tie pasta, black kale, anchovy, shaved brussels sprouts, cranberry beans and sharp bellavitano cheese.

Mr. Glass said that he has a few favorite Pittsburgh restaurants, too, including Salt of the Earth, Cure, Umi and Avenue B.

Still, much like Mr. Orpik, when he's in Pittsburgh, Mr. Glass spends more time eating at home. And, unlike many NHL players, Mr. Glass is a rather accomplished cook. He even posted a photo on his twitter account (@TGlass15) while learning how to make naan in Jodhpur, India.

He said he started taking his culinary journey seriously after playing for a few years in the NHL. "The more you eat at nice restaurants and learn about really good food, the more you start to care about what's going into your body. And while you're out you find things that you want to cook at home."

It's a good thing he's finding a lot of inspiration because he cooks a lot of food. In addition to his gargantuan breakfast, Mr. Glass eats "what you'd think of as a traditional dinner" for lunch, several snacks throughout the day, and "another full dinner at night." He said that lamb is one of his favorite things to cook, but recently, thanks to a few terrific meals on the road, he's experimenting with duck.

For him, a little old-fashioned chivalry also is important. He's a new parent and, "It's my wife's job to feed the baby and my job to cook for the family."

Kitchen coach

It's Mike Kadar's job to make sure that the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins are eating a balanced diet. "Your body is your engine," he said. "If you're putting the wrong food in, you're not going to run efficiently or feel very good."

In addition to keeping track of the players' diets and making recommendations about what to eat, he oversees the team's meals at hotels on the road, works with the team's chefs at Consol Energy Center for after-practice meals and locker-room snacks, and makes sure that the team is fed on airplanes.

The team's 44-year-old strength and conditioning coach developed a passion for whole foods early. He grew up on a farm in Western Canada. "I grew up with everything: canola, wheat, rye, 250 head of cattle, pigs, duck, geese, chicken, goats. I used to milk a goat every morning. We butchered our beef, our pigs. It was right off the farm and onto our plates. That makes a huge difference."

He said that the quality of the food that both the Penguins and other NHL teams are offering has improved exponentially in the last few years. "When I first got into the league ... people were still crushing beers after the game. I'm not saying that's not still a part of it ... but players are much more educated in nutrition and what it does to your performance on and off the ice."

And while he credits nutritional trailblazers like Mr. Roberts and Mr. Orpik for working to change the culture inside the locker room, he said that Sidney Crosby, a player better known for cutting through defenseman than slicing onions, is also indirectly responsible for changing the food culture of the league.

When Mr. Crosby broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old with a 102-point season in 2005-06, his mix of innate skill and intense training was trailblazing for players his age. However, the next generation is catching on and catching up; inspired by Mr. Crosby's work ethic, they train harder and smarter than their predecessors. "I think the gap is closing with those guys compared to Sid. So kids are getting better. If you watch the World Juniors, all the kids were skilled, and fast, and big," Mr. Kadar said. To get ahead in the NHL today, you need to take extra steps off the ice and beyond the gym.

So while he's constantly looking for more efficient training techniques to maximize a player's physical edge, Mr. Kadar knows that one of those steps is convincing players to embrace his love of wholesome and delicious food. "If I can make a one-percent difference, could that be the edge over the next guy you're facing off against? That's huge."

Mr. Kadar also believes that a big breakfast is the best way to start the day. On the road, breakfast happens at the hotel from 7 to 9 a.m. -- coaches tend to arrive earlier than players -- and looks a bit like what you'd get for a Sunday brunch at a fancy resort: scrambled eggs, omelet station, ham steaks, bacon, oatmeal, bread and a cornucopia of fruit.

Leadership

Still, Mr. Kadar's advice is only a recommendation. "All that we can do is give them the education behind it, but they have to make the choices. They're the players, they're the athletes."

Mr. Glass said he "cares more than most" players about what he eats and tries to lead by enticement rather than lecture. When the team travels to cities that he used to play in (Miami, Vancouver, Winnipeg) he'll take some teammates to his favorite restaurants. "They get to meet the chefs and meet the managers. It's a pretty cool experience for them."

Of course, not everyone cares if his food is fresh from the farm or minimally processed. When you're burning 4,000 calories per day (some as many as 5,- or 6,000) and being celebrated as a hero, it's easy to enjoy meat and potatoes -- or Meat and Potatoes -- as often as you want. "Some guys around here, it doesn't matter what you tell them," said Mr. Orpik.

Mr. Kadar said that he's noticed that with some players, especially veterans with ingrained dietary habits, it might take an unexpected challenge to get them to think about changing the way they eat. "When things are going great, there aren't any questions. As soon as guys struggle on the ice, you find that's when they come to you and ask for help."

For his part, Mr. Orpik now plays the position pioneered by Gary Roberts. He has frequent conversations with Coach Kadar about what foods the players should be provided with on the road, and what's available to snack on before and after practice in the team's suites at the Consol Energy Center.

"I think everyone should eat a healthy diet, but when your job depends on your body it's even more imperative," the defenseman said. "I've seen the difference it makes in some guys' careers."


Hal B. Klein: thismanskitchen@gmail.com and on Twitter @ThisMansKitchen.

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