ARLINGTON, Va. – The spread was nice at the Capitals’ annual media day luncheon. Flavourful meat. Fresh veggies. Players, coaches and reporters lounged around various tables, enjoying the food and chatting about hockey.
Over by the window, away from everyone else, sitting a chair at a table with nothing but a drink and nice view, was defenceman Tom Poti.
“They asked me if I wanted something,” Poti said. “I said don’t even worry about it. We’re only here for 40 minutes and I can just go home and eat.”
It was a rare moment in which Poti’s many allergies made him stand out, which is quite remarkable—because he has a lot of them. No nuts. No chocolate. No fish. Nothing from the ocean. No MSG. Most spices and sauces are verboten. Everything he eats has to be cooked in separate, clean utensils. It’s been this way since he began eating solid food as a toddler, when he would break out in hives, rashes and have other problems at nearly every feeding.
“They finally ended up taking me to an allergist. I almost died from the testing it was so bad,” Poti said. “Nowadays they test for just one thing at a time, back then they’d test for everything (at once). I had to get filled up with adrenaline, things like that.
“They finally figured out what I could have and I couldn’t have, and I’ve just been doing that ever since.”
The 33-year-old Massachusetts native is now a veteran professional athlete, with 12 seasons in the NHL and an Olympic silver medal as a member of the U.S. hockey team at Salt Lake City in 2002. He’s proof that even the most sensitive of constitutions can be productive at the most demanding of occupations.
“I don’t think it’s real easy for him, but it’s something that he’s adjusted to,” teammate Brooks Laich said. “Especially with the amount of travel—you’re on airplanes, you’re in hotels. Kudos to Tom for just adjusting and being strong himself with it.”
When the team flies to road games, the charter company has a list of Poti’s allergens. When players go out to eat at a restaurant in another city, Poti will speak to the chef personally “and make sure he can take care of me. … That’s the safest way to do it.”
“I eat a lot of the same stuff most guys do,” Poti said. “I can have chicken, steak, hamburgers, turkey—it just has to be plain. I don’t cook with any oils or any spices. If I eat chicken, it’s just plain grilled chicken. If I eat steak, it’s just plain steak. Hamburger, I don’t put any mustard, relish or ketchup or stuff on it—just plain.”
Poti, his family and his teammates—he’s been in Washington since 2007—are so used to his routine that it has become second nature.
General manager George McPhee says Poti’s allergies have never been an issue, and the few minor things the staff does on Poti’s behalf are hardly an imposition. It’s been eight years since Poti’s last major scare, when he grabbed a bottle of his sister’s lotion in the bathroom because his face and neck were dry. He didn’t look at the ingredients, so he didn’t realize it contained some type of nut oil.
“I started breaking out in hives and got rushed to the hospital,” he said.
Poti carries an EpiPen everywhere he goes. At home, his wife does most of the cooking and has become good at being creative.
“There’s certain things I’ve found that I can have. I use a lot of Italian dressing on things to spice stuff up for me,” Poti said. “And I found a pasta sauce that agrees with me.”
Poti serves as a spokesman for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
“The biggest thing I tell kids—I’ve spoken to a lot of kids over the years—is don’t let it hold you back,” Poti said. “It’s not easy, but I always tell them that everybody has something to deal with, everybody has some kind of problem, and I tell them the way I look at it: I’m fortunate, I can’t eat this certain thing, but there’s a lot of other things I can do.”
Here’s another way to put Poti’s allergies in perspective. Over the last nine months, he’s had two medical scares that are just as worrisome—if not more so—than his food allergies.
Last April 26, he was struck in his right eye by a puck during a playoff game. The impact broke four bones in his face, and he lost sight in the eye for more than 24 hours. He had plastic surgery and his sight recovered enough for him to return for the start of the season.
He still doesn’t have 100 per cent feeling in his face, and the long-term prognosis for the eye is uncertain in part because of the steroid drops he’s been using.
“Any time I could eat something and could go into anaphylactic shock,” Poti said during training camp, “but the scariest thing for me was the eye.”
Poti started wearing a visor on the ice, which his wife and mother had wanted for years.
“It’s weird. It fogs up, and it gets wet and you can’t see,” Poti said. “It’s a lot hotter under there, but I made some promises so I’ve got to keep it on. It’s probably a good thing.”
On Dec. 23, Poti suffered a concussion in the Capitals’ overtime loss to Pittsburgh. The constant headaches caused him to miss three games—including the rematch against the Penguins in the Winter Classic—and to take the usual barrage of tests before returning last week.
Again, it made a hamburger without mustard seem trivial.
“With your allergies, usually if you stay away from some things, you’re OK,” Poti said after his first game back. “With a concussion, you never know what’s going to happen.”