Philadelphia Flyers prospect Brayden Schenn was standing in his local grocery store recently, uncertain of what he could buy to fit in with his radical new training regimen this off-season.
So he snapped a picture of a questionable deli meat with his smart phone, sent it off to a Toronto-area number and added a brief message: "Can I eat this?"
Which is when Gary Roberts, hockey's diet guru, leapt into action.
"I spend half my time on the phone – that's the kind of texts I receive," Mr. Roberts said. "Can I eat these cold cuts? Can I eat these beans? It's pretty funny."
Since his retirement from the NHL two years ago, the 45-year-old Mr. Roberts has become almost legendary for his ability to train and pump up young prospects. His first disciple, Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos, is the perfect example: He added 15 pounds of muscle after his rookie season and led the league in goals with 51 as a sophomore.
Ever since, players have been lining up at Mr. Roberts's door – 42 pro-level players are training with him this summer – but few realize that the most extreme part of his strategy involves the kitchen instead of the gym.
Players are assigned a diet that has no wheat, no sugar, no soy and no processed or packaged foods. Everything must be organic, from deli meats on up, and the 26-item list of what players should eat includes goat's milk, sunflower sprouts, mung beans, salba, chia and hemp.
While their workouts at Mr. Roberts's High Performance Centre gym north of Toronto get most of the outside attention, players find that it's what they eat that's the most important part of the program.
"It's nutrition, then body maintenance – treatment or yoga – and then it's the training. If you don't do the first two, the third one's not going to work out that well," says Mr. Roberts.
The diet has earned a few grumbles from NHL players, with some saying it's bland or hard to follow – never mind the cost for those not yet making millions. But those concerns never reach the ears of the man who became known as "Scary Gary" throughout his career.
Most players buy in simply because it's Mr. Roberts giving the advice, and they all know the story of how he resurrected his career using the radical diet and exercise plan after chronic neck pain had forced him to retire at age 30. Mr. Roberts went on to play 11 more seasons for five NHL teams, carrying his various organic trail mixes and snacks with him everywhere he went – and getting curious looks from teammates for it – before he finally retired on his own terms as one of the oldest players in the league.
"The only way I was going to be able to come back and play was through a change in lifestyle," he said, crediting trainers and nutritionists he knew at the time for pointing him in the right direction. "I didn't change anything about the way I played. I just had to change my body to be able to take the pounding I took every night.
"Through guys like Lorne Goldenberg, Charles Poliquin and Sam Bock, they changed the way I looked at nutrition. And I feel better today at 45 than I did at 30 when I retired."
Fifteen years later, Mr. Goldenberg chuckles when asked about Mr. Roberts's fanatical level of commitment to the diet. He's quick to point out, however, that the average person can take away a lot from what Mr. Roberts is preaching.
"He's on another planet with this stuff," said Mr. Goldenberg, who still trains NHL players out of the Athletic Conditioning Centre in Ottawa. "It is a high-performance diet more than anything, but many of the principles we use at the training centre involve nutrition that everyone should be following.
"People need to eat the right fruits and vegetables, the right balance of protein. It's very easy during the day to just grab a granola bar, which is just packed with sugar and additives. … A more optimal snack might be some raw almonds with organic cranberries, for example."
For Mr. Roberts, passing along what he learned about nutrition to a new generation of players has become his personal passion, one he will continue during the season by beginning to work with minor hockey teams in addition to the 16 junior players he already has under his wing.
So many pros are now turning to him, meanwhile, that Mr. Roberts has had to turn players away. A considerable portion of the league's young players will be on the diet this season, with potentially as many as 10 per cent of NHL regulars 25 and under eating the Gary way.
In addition to Mr. Schenn and Mr. Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, James Neal, Jordan Staal and Cody Hodgson are among the more high-profile players who have bought in.
"I've learned a lot from him," Mr. Schenn said. "I've always tried to pay attention to nutrition the past three or four years, but this is another level.
"I thought if it was working for the other guys, I would try it out as well. You see what they do and you push yourself to their level. That's what I wanted."
In conjunction with Nature's Emporium health-food store, NHLer-turned-fitness-guru Gary Roberts has come up with a menu plan and shopping list for young players . Here's what he tells followers of his plan to incorporate into their diet:
- Full-fat yogurt, pressed cottage cheese, goat's milk (3.5% MF), organic cream cheese, raw or cured parmigiano
- Organic steak, natural sausage, organic chicken, wild-caught canned tuna, wild salmon
- Kale, baby greens (Asian mix, root mix, mache), sprouts (sunflower, pea, arugula), avocado, chickpeas, mung beans, lentils
- Quinoa, brown rice, brown-rice pasta, salba, chia, hemp, sunflower seeds
- Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, coconut
- Extra-virgin olive oil (and coconut oil)
- Variety of other fresh fruits (including goji berries) and vegetables
- Stay away from processed and unhealthy packaged foods
Below are four of his many recipes, as well as what he tells players to buy at the grocery store:
SAMPLE RECIPE (MEAL)
Place naturally raised chicken breast and thigh in baking dish. Add fresh oregano or basil, two chopped tomatoes, a chopped onion, a chopped garlic clove and 1/4 cup black or green olives.
Bake uncovered for 45 minutes or until done.
Serve with spelt pasta or brown rice or roasted Italian vegetables (zucchini, pepper, onion, garlic).
SAMPLE RECIPE (CONDIMENT)
Roasted red pepper mayonnaise
4 red, yellow or orange peppers, a garlic clove, 4 tablespoons olive oil, sea salt
Bake peppers in half the olive oil at 400F until soft. Remove burnt skin. Place all ingredients in blender or food processor and blend until chunky or smooth (depending on preference).
Use to marinate meats, as a vegetable dip, with pasta or as mayonnaise for sandwiches and wraps.
SAMPLE RECIPE (SHAKES)
Gary Roberts's Molten Chocolate Mousse
1/4 cup of cacao powder, four bananas and a little water. Blend until extremely well mixed.
Steve Stamkos's Mango Mousse
1 large mango, 1 tablespoon salba or chia seeds, 1 tablespoon agave nectar or maple syrup, 1 tablespoon coconut oil (optional).
Blend until extremely well mixed