I know this column will come out after the holidays, but the last month of hockey has put me in the spirit with some unexpected gifts. Every month, I read Julie Nicoletti’s New England Hockey Journal column on sports nutrition, and I sigh. Here I am, a doctoral student in a nutrition department, and my son won’t eat anything associated with a plant, let alone eat a diet that supports his hockey well. At least not without it being processed beyond recognition. Guilt, thou art my middle name.
Every year for my son’s physical, the pediatrician reassures me that Sam is not only healthy, but growing off the charts. We recently had a sports performance evaluation done for the kids for injury prevention purposes, and Sam ranked highly for speed, strength and cardiovascular fitness. So clearly, the lack of fruits and vegetables in his diet isn’t hurting him too much.
Still, I worry. A lot. Being in my field, you can’t avoid the mounting scientific evidence linking processed foods with chronic disease, or fruits and vegetables with protective effects. Lest you think we just don’t try enough, let me assure that I have lived and died by the 20-exposure rule, the one that says that you simply need to ensure your child tastes a particularly food 15-20 times and they will develop an affinity for it, no matter how green it is.
They also say every child is exceptional in their own way. Clearly Sam is exceptional when it comes to the 20-exposure rule.
So when Sam came home from practice one night and announced that he was going to eat vegetables from now on, I didn’t believe him for a second. I figured he was setting me up for a punch line, or simply looking to leverage something onto his Christmas list. The kid is smart. He knows this is my Achilles heel.
But lo and behold, he ate his vegetables at dinner that night, without a peep. And brussels sprouts, no less. He even ordered broccoli on his own at a restaurant.
It turns out that he’d overheard a couple of high-school players at the rink discussing changes they were making to their diets to try to get some performance benefits on the ice. Thank goodness they weren’t discussing protein shakes or supplements; instead he heard them talking about getting more green to get lean.
Where he would shrug off the advice of an adult, whether a coach, a doctor or a parent, hearing the guys he idolizes talk positively about plant foods flipped the switch for him. Go figure. I would have bribed those kids a long time ago had I known. I won’t say that he’s turned into a vegetarian, but the improvement has been real, and as a mom who worries a lot about my kids’ health, it was probably the best gift I could have gotten this holiday season.
Sam got a great gift of his own from hockey last month when one of his coaches managed to book the team to play at intermission at a Boston University hockey game at Agganis Arena in Boston. It was a frigid night, but Sam and his teammates didn’t feel a thing as they bounded from the parking lot to the side doors where the locker rooms are. Seeing the enormity of the 7,200-seat arena from ice level before they got changed, they let out a chorus of “whoa!”
The parents and kids watched the first period together from the stands. The team was treated to celebrity status on the massive scoreboard as they cheered on BU in a scrappy game against North Dakota. I wondered how Sam, a shy kid, would react to all the attention, but being with his teammates was his security blanket and any nerves were replaced with the sheer joy of playing before a crowd of enthusiastic fans.
Even though it was intermission, it seemed like everyone stayed in their seats to watch the Mites play their four-minute “game.” It might have been the highlight of Sam’s life to watch the footage on NESN later than night. Because the team split in two to play each other, there were no shifts. But even after they were exhausted, they played their hearts out till the end, scoring on a breakaway to tie the game with less than 5 seconds left. Sam was over the moon!
We were so grateful that the kids got such a special opportunity. It will stay with them their entire lives. The BU staff members were so kind and professional. They made the kids feel right at home as the little boys took enormous pride in getting to use the “real” hockey players’ locker rooms and put on the BU hockey hats they were given.
During the preceding week, our coaches fielded a veritable blizzard of coordinating emails from all the families trying to make sure they all got to Agganis at the right time and in the right place. I have to admit, I thought they were a little crazy for taking this on in the middle of the season, on top of their real jobs. But I’m thankful they did, since I’ve never seen Sam so happy before, and I’m pretty sure he might just keep eating his vegetables on the off chance he’ll be able to play there again one day.
April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.