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Kostya Kennedy
January 10, 2000
A Hunger to PlayDietary restrictions have not stopped Oilers defenseman Tom Poti
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January 10, 2000

The Nhl

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A Hunger to Play
Dietary restrictions have not stopped Oilers defenseman Tom Poti

At 22 and in his second NHL season, Oilers defenseman Tom Poti is cagey beyond his years. He's a deft poke checker, passes with precision and is so savvy in his positioning that Edmonton coach Kevin Lowe calls him "unfailingly reliable." Poti has performed so well that through Sunday he was ranked eighth in the NHL in playing time, with nearly 27 minutes per game. The guys ahead of Poti on that list include elite backliners Chris Pronger, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake and Nicklas Lidstrom, and Poti is easily the youngest among the top 15 in ice time. There could be a Norris Trophy in his future.

Yet for those who know Poti well, such as his father, Emil, the most remarkable thing about the Oilers defenseman is that he's on the ice at all. From about the age of 18 months—the time he stopped using baby formula—Poti has battled bizarre and frightening food allergies. With little warning his face would become badly swollen, or he would break out in hives and rashes. Over the years the Potis identified the perilous foods as, among other things, nuts, chocolate, fish and monosodium glutamate, a preservative commonly referred to as MSG. When he ate any of those foods (or foods with MSG), his throat would swell nearly shut and he would have to be hospitalized.

As a kid Poti brought his own cake to birthday parties; as a teenager he lugged an equipment bag full of food with him on hockey road trips. In the spring of 1996, during his senior year at Gushing Academy prep school in Ashburnham, Mass., he almost died while eating with buddies in the cafeteria. "There was almond flavoring in the rice, and I didn't realize it," says Poti. "All of a sudden I could barely breathe. A nurse there injected adrenaline into my thigh, which saved me before I got to the hospital. Now I carry adrenaline and a needle wherever I go."

Poti's seemingly fragile health contributed to his slipping precipitously in the '96 draft. Weighing only 175 pounds at the time (compared with 215 now), Poti was ranked among the top 15 prospects by NHL Central Scouting. However, after talk of his allergies circulated, the Oilers were able to steal him in the third round.

Since reaching the NHL, Poti has avoided allergic reactions and built his strength by subsisting largely on plain pasta, meat without gravy and cereal "When I'm out with the team, I have to go into the kitchen and talk to the cook," he says. "I can't risk anything."

On Christmas day, toting a syringe full of adrenaline, Poti went to the home of teammate Bill Guerin, who was hosting several Oilers for a feast of pork roast, potatoes and corn bread. Poti huddled over his sauceless pasta. "When I met him last season, I worried," says Lowe. "Not anymore. He's got an inner strength that drives him. The way he plays makes the worry go away."

NHL and the Olympics
Let the Games Begin

As the NHL weighs whether or not to send its players to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City—final negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the IOC should take place later this month—here's our recommendation: By all means, send them. The Olympics remain a key opportunity for the NHL to showcase its talent to a far wider audience than its core fans. Just as in Nagano in 1998, the Games could field highly skilled, highly entertaining all-star teams from Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. In '98 the gold medal performance of the Czech team, led by Penguins winger Jaromir Jagr and Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek, provided the most stirring hockey of the year.

Of course, not everything went smoothly in Nagano. The 14-hour time difference between Japan and the east coast of the U.S. meant that TV audiences in North America saw little live action. What's more, neither the U.S. team nor the Canadians won a medal, and the American contingent further embarrassed itself with boorish behavior that included players' trashing a hotel room in the Olympic village. U.S. left wing Keith Tkachuk summed up the Olympic experience as "a waste of time." Participation in the Games also forced the NHL to interrupt regular-season play for 18 days, and many players complained that the league's schedule, re-jiggered to make up for the lost time, was too compressed and exhausting.

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