By: Denis Collier, Hockey Dietitian
The minor hockey seasons of my youth were always capped off by the provincial tournament over Easter vacation. Our team would load on to a bus and drive hours to some small town where we’d play 5 or 6 games over 3 or 4 days. One year we even flew to Labrador. These tournaments were highlights not only of the hockey season itself, but of the entire calendar year. That includes Christmas and summer holidays. As I grew older and played higher levels of hockey the season concluded with play-offs – the more series’ the better! However your hockey season ends, there’s a good chance it will involve some kind of travel. Travel presents some unique nutritional challenges for athletes. The purpose of this article is to help you maximize your nutrition during this most important time of year.
When thinking about nutrition in traveling to a year-end tournament or play-off series I am reminded of one of the most fundamental principles in all of sports nutrition:
“A great diet won’t make an average athlete elite, but a poor diet can make an elite athlete average”.
The reason why this quote has been used so many times over the years is because it’s so profound. Quite simply if you’ve neglected to think about your diet until this point in the season, you’ve squandered the opportunity to better yourself as a hockey player. Even if you ate the world’s most spectacular diet over these last few days of the season (important as they are) it would result in a relatively minimal benefit compared to what you could have achieved by following the proper diet and training plan all year long. However making poor nutritional choices at this crucial time could quickly sabotage your ability perform at your best. Here are three ideas to ensure this doesn’t happen:
#1) Plan Ahead
“Scouting” is nothing new in the hockey world. But “nutritional scouting” might be. There should be someone on your team whose job it is to find out about how your team is going to be eating on the upcoming trip. Likely you’ll know well in advance the exact time of (at least some of) your games. From there you can plan when would be the best times to eat. Next step is to figure out where. Like all scouting in the digital age, this is much easier than it used to be. A simple internet search can determine which restaurants are in the area. Another strategy, like so many things in hockey, is to learn from the people who have already done it. Maybe a team went to this same place last year. Ask someone from that team about the issues they faced and experiences they had in trying to eat properly.
#2) Use Restaurants Wisely
Truly my intention here is neither to recommend nor condemn any restaurant in particular. It’s probably true that one could find some good choices and some bad choices in any restaurant. Probably. But I will make mention of one restaurant only because of its ubiquitous nature to young hockey players, and dare I say, all kids in North America. Every year 30,000+ atom hockey players are part of the McDonald’s “atoMc” hockey program. They receive pro-style jerseys and matching socks. A worthy contribution no doubt. Sponsored teams also receive a kit full of other legitimately good stuff – like official Hockey Canada coaching materials. The nobility of the gesture gets a little foggier however when McDonald’s also includes in the kit coupons for teams to redeem at participating restaurants. Now I reiterate that one can probably find at McDonald’s some choices that meet the criteria for good sports nutrition. Probably. But I ask you, what is a team full of 9-10 year olds more likely to choose? A Big Mac with a medium fries and medium Coke totals 1120 calories and 46 grams of fat. Ingesting such amounts prior to hitting the ice for a big game would be tough even for Zdeno Chara to handle. If your atom players ate this, I’d love to be the coach playing against you. I acknowledge that for practical purposes eating in restaurants might become a necessity at year end tournaments or out of town play-off games. I would encourage all players and coaches to have an eye for the nutritional information that is now provided by many restaurant franchises.
#3) Bring Your own Coolers Stocked with Great Food
And we’ve saved the best idea for last! Think of all the gear a team is required to bring when traveling to play in another town. Every player has a bag full of hockey equipment. Every player has a stick. Every player has a back up stick. Someone has to bring a dozen or so water bottles. Don’t forget the pucks! Some teams even travel with their own skate sharpening machine. I will hereby suggest a mandatory piece of equipment for all traveling hockey teams should be a few good sizes coolers. You know, the kind you’d take camping. The benefits of this strategy are numerous. Traveling with your own snacks eliminates the uncertainty of finding good food on the road. It also means the food your take is familiar to and well tolerated by the players. What could be a better between game snack than your favourite turkey sandwich on rye bread made by your own mother? Wrap it in tinfoil, throw it in the cooler and away you go. Yogurt also does well stored over a little ice. There’s even lots of highly nutritious snacks that are great for athletic performance that don’t need to be cooled at all such as crackers, rice cakes, tinned fruit, bananas, dried fruit and nuts. Believe it or not I even once knew a player who packed his own loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter in his suitcase for a road trip because that was his tried, tested and true go-to pre-game snack.
There are tonnes of great reasons for losing hockey games. Nutrition should not be one of them. As your biggest games of the year are approaching and you might be leaving the comforts of your home town to play them, give some consideration to the three ideas I’ve mentioned in this article.