ST. PAUL, Minn. - Their skates and sticks were three kilometres away, back at the arena. The equipment for the group of Minnesota Wild prospects this evening? An apron and a kitchen utensil or two.
The Minnesota Wild hosted 37 players at their annual development camp last week, with drills and scrimmages broken up by sessions on strength, conditioning and nutrition. It's part of a more holistic approach that has become more prevalent in professional hockey and other sports in recent years.
For the Wild prospects, it meant swapping pucks for parsley for a night. They crowded around grills and skillets as they chopped, sliced and stirred various meat cuts, vegetables and seasonings to produce a menu featuring bourbon honey salmon and chicken pasta primavera. There was plenty of stubble and shaggy hair, but this was a baseball cap crowd, no hair nets.
"It's fun for the guys. You get your mind off hockey and get out of the rink," said 19-year-old Erik Haula, a native Finn who will play for the University of Minnesota in the fall.
The cooking class was held at a local store, and it was more than simply a chance to bond away from the ice.
Diet can be a critical factor in athletic performance, and players on their own for the first time at the college, junior or minor league levels have a lot more to learn than just the nuances of the game.
"It kind of makes us grow up as people," said defenceman Nate Prosser, who as a recently married 24-year-old has a clear edge over the other prospects when it comes to eating right and taking care of himself when he's not at the rink
Still, Prosser is from the generation of microwave meals.
"It's not like my grandparents, where they would live strictly from the farm," Prosser said. "We're kind of unaware of what nutrition's all about. It's good to learn about."
Wild director of player development Brad Bombardir remembered his struggle, while playing for the University of North Dakota, to find his rhythm off the ice.
"I could never figure out why my body would not react to the hard training. I figured it out finally, now looking back," Bombardir said. "Eating a box of pasta every night, that's not good. That doesn't help. Carbohydrates are important, but not that many carbohydrates!
"But back then you always heard people saying, 'Oh, you need your carbs. That's your fuel,'" said Bombardir, who played seven seasons in the NHL. "So we were filling our bodies full of that. The new way of thinking is maybe it's not quite as much carbs, but more balance and a lot more protein."
Colton Gillies, the Wild's first-round draft pick in 2007, is a four-time participant who has seen the rookie camp evolve even in that short time.
"It went from being, 'Let's get all these guys in really good shape,' to more like, 'Let's get them in good shape, but at the same time let's develop them, let's teach them how to be a good pro, let's teach them how to live on their own,'" Gillies said.
Starting now, not later.
"It's a way of life if you want to play in the National Hockey League and become as good of a player as you possibly can," Bombardir said. "It doesn't happen when you walk in here an hour before practice and leave an hour after. It happens the other 22 hours outside when you work to prepare yourself properly."