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Wings prospects learn nutrition, cooking skills

Some have better luck than others when it comes to smoothies

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

DETROIT -- A lot goes into becoming a professional hockey player but most people think only of the on-ice work and the training in the gym.

But to reach the highest level, young players also have to learn the best way to fuel their bodies.

At Detroit Red Wings Development Camp, team dietitian Lisa McDowell runs her own off-ice classes to make sure the young prospects have the best information to take back with them to the American Hockey League, junior hockey, college hockey programs or the European leagues.

"Just fun camaraderie," McDowell said about the cooking classes. "You see them laughing, it takes a little bit of the stress off; more bonding, they're looking out for each other, a lot of joking around. But they genuinely care that everybody's looked after and doing OK. So I think it's a fun time for everyone. This is, I think, my seventh or eighth cooking class with the prospects."

On Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena, half of the prospects entered the Red Wings' spacious dressing room to find six stations around the massive kitchen and lounge area.

The first was a quiz area with multiple choice and true-or-false tests to see how well the players are retaining the information they've been learning in their classes.

Another was an area to prepare overnight oats for a quick, nutritious breakfast that can be made in advance for the week.

A third station was for learning knife skills and also how to shop, especially at places like Costco or Sam's Club.

A fourth station had everything the players needed to make healthy smoothies.

The final two stations had professional chefs to teach the players easy ways to prepare chicken or salmon.

The players divided up into three teams of three and three teams of four and rotated around the stations in 10-minute sessions.

The Air Cholo team, comprised of defensemen Dennis Cholowski and Cole Fraser plus forward Jack Adams, was a bit challenged at the smoothie station.

"I put too much kale," Cholowski said, grimacing.

"Mine tastes like a garden," Fraser said, laughing as he tried his concoction.

The smoothies generally had some protein powder, superfood blends, kale and spinach, chia seeds, nut butters, berries, bananas, coconut water and ice.

The overnight oats station had the players select ingredients to go along with their oats and almond milk. There were several varieties of nuts, dried fruits like raisins and goji berries, maca powder, collagen, flaxseed, natural sweeteners like raw honey and some healthy fats.

After learning how to chop vegetables with some extremely sharp chef's knives, McDowell gave the youngsters some ideas when shopping for quick, easy-to-prepare meals.

McDowell emphasized that you can get packages of ancient grains, lentils, quinoa and pasta that can be heated up in 60-90 seconds.

When sitting with the group of three Swedes and a Swiss -- forward Jonatan Berggren, defenseman Alfons Malmstrom and goaltenders Jesper Eliasson and Joren van Pottelberghe -- McDowell noted that the Nordic diet was generally healthier than the traditional American one.

"Sweden is phenomenal," McDowell said.

She encouraged them to eat things like sardines as smaller fish have fewer contaminants like mercury and to add sauces like vindaloo and coconut curry, which contain curcumin, which is anti-inflammatory.

After going through the six stations, the players got to enjoy a meal prepared with many of the things they had seen during the class.

"Many of them have not tried a lot of the foods that we have tonight," McDowell said. "We have five different grains, we have 10 different fruits and vegetables, we have the cooking techniques so they're learning from expert chefs how to prepare salmon and chicken, which is often found in the athlete's diet. And learning how to chop properly so we want them to cut up vegetables, we want them to know how to use a knife and to feel comfortable. When they eat out, you see that they're just not getting high-quality food most of the time.

"So having the ability to know how to put a meal together in five or 10 minutes is essential. So what I did is I bought a lot of foods that have an instant option that's ready in 60 or 90 seconds to show them how simple it is to put together, how to rip kale apart so they can add greens to every meal - or spinach so they're getting their leafy greens and good quality grains, good carbohydrates for blood sugar control so they're not spiking and dropping."

For players like Cholowski, this is his third time at development camp but that doesn't mean he isn't learning something new.

"I learned I'm not good at making smoothies," Cholowski said, laughing. "But I learned it's quite easy to make salmon. I'm going to have to start doing it."

For first-timer Otto Kivenmaki, everything was new.

"I learned to do a smoothie," Kivenmaki said. "It's something I will do back home."

Kivenmaki said he will cook for himself if his mother is not available to cook for him.

In general, Kivenmaki agreed that the diet back in Finland seemed to be more healthy than the one in the United States.

"In Finland, we have very healthy food," he said. "In Europe, people think Americans eat fast food all the time."

Alec Regula, another first-timer, said he cooks lunch for himself nearly every day.

"I learned some knife skills," Regula said. "I learned chicken skills."

But like Cholowski, the learning curve with the smoothies was a steep one.

"(I learned) how to make a bad smoothie," Regula said. "I was like, 'I can't drink this.'"

McDowell has learned that you can teach these kids a thing or two about foods and their impact on their performance on the ice, things that show up when they test the players' blood.

"One of my favorite stories goes back to Luke Glendening," McDowell said. "When he was at development camp, he told me that he ate out often. He just didn't have the skills and he learned them and he learned real simple recipes and his markers are amazing. So I think it does make a difference. When I can take their lab results back to them and sit with them and show them where opportunities are and now they've seen the foods. They've seen spinach, they've seen kale, they've seen beets, they've seen tart cherries, oatmeal. We did build overnight oats that will soak in almond milk. I don't know that they would ever do that at home but now they know, geez, I literally made oats in minutes and I can make a week's worth, put them in the fridge and have them every morning and get that blood sugar control so they can preserve their glycogen stores on the ice.

"So they're lessons that are so tangible. They can apply them and then they can feel them when they skate."

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