I’ve been involved with the great sport of ice hockey — as a player, coach and administrator — for as long as I can remember. The game has taken me around the world while developing lifelong friendships and learning countless life skills. I found many similarities when I started my vegan journey.
As my health improved, the universe presented new ideas and friends. Beyond the food, I discovered animal rights, sustainable fashion and the countless benefits for our planet. However, I often felt like a vegan outlier in the world of hockey. I often wondered when — or if — these worlds would connect.
In recent years, more high-level athletes have adopted the plant-based lifestyle. From MMA fighters to professional football players, more competitors are seeking an extra edge from plant power. The quest for bigger, stronger and faster is a 24/7 pursuit in athletics. I often refer back to an episode of Rich Roll’s podcast featuring former NBA basketball player, John Salley. He recounts working with younger players and using the analogy of a sports car. If you own an expensive car, you’ll be meticulous with maintenance and use top-line fuel and oil to ensure said car can perform to the best of its abilities. Pro athletes, weekend warriors and everyone in between should follow the same line of thinking. We are all performing all the time. Whether it’s at work, coaching Little League baseball, playing an instrument or Sunday night beer-league hockey, we perform to the maximum of our abilities when fueling and recovery are daily priorities.
I’ve long thought hockey players would grasp and appreciate the benefits of plants. Hockey is chaos on ice, a ballet of mayhem. There are no out of bounds and there is significant body contact. It’s a game of anticipation where the ability to read and react is paramount. The best hockey player at any level is almost always the smartest player on the ice. Wayne Gretzky was not the strongest or fastest man on the ice but he had an uncanny ability to create time and space in an environment where both are extremely limited. The physical demands of the game are plentiful, requiring a rare combination of explosive power, coordination, body control, core strength and balance. Players at the highest levels, as in all sports, spend extensive time on the road making energy management a constant challenge.
It is a joy to see that more players are thriving with a plant-based diet in pursuit of hockey glory. At 6’9” and 250 pounds, Zdeno Chara, the 41-year-old captain of the Boston Bruins, has aspirations of competing until he is 45. In a league (National Hockey League) trending younger, Chara is an athlete who approaches his craft (and life) with a growth mindset. He recently made the switch to a plant-based diet as part of his quest to play until the age of 45.
Although Stanley Cup winner Mike Zigomanis is retired from professional hockey, he is continuing his athletic pursuits as a triathlete, all the while powered by plants. His vegan transition is even more impressive considering the last years of his career were spent in the American Hockey League (AHL), the AAA-level minor league circuit one step below the NHL. The AHL is primarily a bus league for many teams, typically playing 3 games in 3 nights most weekends. Zigomanis’s discipline — http://nationalpost.com/sports/hockey/nhl/mike-zigomanis-balances-vegan-diet-with-life-in-the-ahl — shows that with planning and creativity, the lifestyle is an achievable goal for any athlete.
Hockey players, like virtually all high-level athletes will experiment with, and ultimately adopt, and methodology that helps them recover quicker, provide efficient fast-digesting fuel, and gain power and quickness. In recent years, the practice of yoga has found its way into more ice rinks. Veganism, being a natural extension of yoga and mindfulness, is bound to find its way to more hockey players, such as Ryan O’Reilly of Buffalo Sabres. A noted yogi during his days with the Colorado Avalanche, O’Reilly and others are citing documentaries such as Food, Inc. as inspirations while finding improved sleep and digestion.
With more male athletes jumping on the plant-based bandwagon, this will help to further dispel many preconceived notions regarding masculinity, protein intake and fueling best practices. With more athletes finding personal benefits in the bigger picture, we all benefit with more animals spared, less damage to our planet and increased positive messaging regarding our lifestyle.
A lifelong athlete and coach, Matt adopted the vegan lifestyle 5 years ago. He is a graduate of eCornell’s plant-based nutrition program, Main Street Vegan Academy, and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s Holistic Health Coaching program. He played college hockey at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he earned a Bachelor’s in Mass Communications and a Masters in Sport Management. He recently spent eight years working with USA Hockey (Colorado Springs, CO) in Coach Education and Athlete Development. Currently based in Carlsbad, CA, Matt is a certified yoga instructor and a two-time Ironman triathlon finisher.