The habits of today’s NHLers are alien to their predecessors. Old-time players reached for a smoke between periods and beers after a win. Water breaks at practice were rewards, not required. The league was running on steak and potatoes.
“I don’t remember diet being a consideration at all,” said Rick Middleton, who retired as a Bruin in 1988.
Had “Nifty” played today, he might grab a breakfast of avocado and egg whites at the Bruins’ spiffy practice palace, Warrior Ice Arena. After a workout, he would shed his wearable performance monitor and down a recovery smoothie of plant protein and antioxidant-laden berries. He might tuck into a lunch of spaghetti squash with pumpkin seeds and portobello mushrooms.
As training has evolved to the point where technical skills coaches use high-speed video to shape once-informal summer workouts, NHL teams provide their most important employees with high-performance fuel. The Bruins, though they are trying to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the fourth time in the last decade, have only recently caught their peers in this area.
They moved into Warrior in 2016, after nearly 30 years practicing at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington. Their new digs have all the amenities modern NHLers expect: a tech-loaded weight room and indoor speed track, hot and cold tubs for recovery, an underwater treadmill, a cushy player lounge. They began hiring more trainers and an analytics department, both new NHL standards.
The kitchen is their area of recent progress. Though many NHL teams already had dietitians on the payroll, the Bruins didn’t have one until 2015, when they hired Julie Nicoletti of Westwood-based Kinetic Fuel. They made Keith Garman their first team chef last season, and made him full-time this year. The pair has helped change attitudes.
“When I first started, pregame meal was a lot of steak, mashed potatoes and pasta,” Nicoletti said. “If we put that out there now, there would be a huge rebellion.
“And knowing what we know, that it takes longer for red meat to digest, that’s not what we’d want the players to have. We’re armed with more information. The players are more receptive to it. They know it makes a difference.”
Garman, formerly of Cambridge’s Alden & Harlow, prepares breakfast and post-practice lunches, plus meals before and after games. Nicoletti learns every player’s likes and dislikes, and suggests what food, and when, might offer the most benefit. Young prospects are taught how to shop at their first development camp, so they can focus on learning the Bruins’ system, rather than fretting about an upset stomach. They often text photos of their meals to Nicoletti to double-check.
Garman’s dishes help introduce unfamiliar foods like baby bok choy, turnips, and spaghetti squash. The spinach and strawberry salad is high in antioxidants. The chicken soup has bone broth, which helps connective tissue and gut health. During flu season, players can down a Vitamin C-packed “immunity shot” of ginger, clementine and beet juice. Dark, leafy greens abound.
“There’s intention to every single ingredient,” Nicoletti said. “It reinforces the culture that we’ve created, which is: You take care of yourself. It’s non-negotiable.”
This has been a fairly recent development leaguewide. In the late 1990s, the Bruins handed their prospects an offseason training guide, which included plans for low-cost healthy eating. It recommended pancakes, French toast, waffles, and muffins for breakfast. Top toast with jelly instead of butter or cream cheese. Pizza for lunch? Of course, but with onions and peppers, not hamburg and sausage.
That was health food compared to Middleton’s day, when few players even lifted weights.
“The first time we were even tested, early in the season with the Rangers in 1975, we were in a room with some treadmill,” Middleton recalled. “Peter Stemkowski was on the treadmill with a hose coming out of his mouth. Someone came into the room and tripped over the cord, and the treadmill stopped. He kept going. He ran right into the wall.”
In a letter dated Aug. 2, 1962, Toronto coach Punch Imlach laid out his requirements for training camp They were strict, as they should have been for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Imlach demanded his players show up no more than seven pounds overweight, and able to do at least 20 pushups, 20 sit-ups, and 30 knee bends. “Golf will be a must in the training camp schedule,” Imlach added, noting that arrangements had been made for the team at a local country club.
Aside from a few light weeks after the season ends, modern NHLers train almost daily, depending on their carefully managed schedules. Back then, players got into shape during five weeks of training camp, skating twice a day. Middleton warmed up for games by playing in the game. “Stretch the groins out, but don’t go full speed,” he said. “You don’t want to pull anything. Later in the ’80s, we did some stretching on the ice, especially in training camp.”
It makes today’s players go bug-eyed when they hear such old tales. Mike Boyle, whom the Bruins made their first strength coach in 1990, said he had to advise then-coach Mike Milbury that “trying to rehydrate with beer wasn’t a great strategy.” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, 54, remembered walking into the restroom between periods of his first NHL game in 1984 and seeing seven of his Blackhawks teammates puffing away.
“That’s just wild,” Torey Krug said. “Even if you’re around smoke now, the next day you feel awful.”
The defenseman has been using plant-based supplements since he turned pro in 2012. He is “flirting” with the idea of being vegan, though he admits a fondness for cheese pizza. He loads his plate with fresh veggies, grains and legumes. His energy levels have never been higher.
“When you learn a little more, it opens your eyes,” he said. “You want to learn more about how you’re fueling yourself. I’ve gone from somewhat aware to extremely aware. It’s part of the job.”
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports