Aside from arenas packed with fans, what NHL players might miss most during this COVID-19 season are team dinners on the road.
The 29-city NHL circuit across the U.S. and Canada takes the Blackhawks — and all their opponents — within close range of many of the continent’s most delicious restaurants every year. Those off- and practice-day dinners out with teammates provide rare, much-appreciated breaks from the physical, mental and even social grinds of weeklong trips.
This year, because of league policy changes designed to limit the virus’ spread, those restaurant visits haven’t been possible.
“On an off-day, usually you have a lot more freedom — lunch is provided, but maybe [for] dinner you go to a restaurant with a group of guys,” forward Ryan Carpenter said. “Now all the meals are provided for us, all the time.”
Those restaurant dinners have been replaced with an endless schedule of buffets, and not the typical kind of buffets, either. Players aren’t allowed to serve themselves, and sometimes each available item comes pre-packaged.
“We’re not allowed to dole it out ourselves; we have to get someone to do it for us,” defenseman Ian Mitchell said. “It’s a little bit different than in most years, of course.”
But while the NHL’s COVID-19 policy changes have affected where and how the Hawks get their food, the amount they eat — and the high quality of that food — remains unchanged.
Hockey players are notoriously ravenous. Simply to replenish their caloric output, Hawks players regularly consume food quantities that would add many pounds to the average person.
There is no McDonald’s on the menu, but there is some of everything else.
“We have meals pretty much all day, pretty much everything you can think of,” defenseman Connor Murphy said recently. “They coordinate with our trainers and nutritionists to make sure we’ve got the right stuff cooked a certain way.”
The Hawks have a reputation as one of the best teams, food-wise, in the league, Murphy said. That’s not only because of Chicago’s world-class array of restaurants, but because the food the organization cooks in-house or caters is especially tasty and abundant.
“That’s a perk that guys have here more so than other teams: the amount of food and everything being available to us all day long and on the road, [allowing us] to keep eating and getting recovered,” Murphy said.
“We have a full salad bar and pretty much any kind of food you can think of. A lot of guys go with the chicken and pastas and other cooked vegetables, so nothing too crazy there. But the food has been unreal.”
He’s not kidding about the fact most players, in spite of the unlimited options, seek the same regular order every time — at least for their pregame meals.
Consider how frequently chicken appears among these Hawks’ go-to choices:
• Carpenter: Salad, chicken with rice.
• Mitchell: Salad, sweet potatoes, chicken with rice.
• Mattias Janmark: Salad, breaded chicken with pasta.
• Alex DeBrincat: Salad, chicken with pasta.
• Brandon Hagel: Chicken Parmesan.
DeBrincat admitted — regarding his chicken and pasta — that “when you’re on the road for so long, you get sick of it a little bit.” But that doesn’t stop him from going back to it every game day.
Hagel has no remorse about his obsession.
“I’m a ‘chicken parm’ kind of guy,” he said. “That’s where I need to get my strength from for games. That’s my favorite every day of the week.”
So while COVID-19 might have made acquiring food slightly less exciting and more routine for the Hawks, they’re still clearly eating well.
After all, if Hagel still can charge into a four-man battle and come out with the puck during a pandemic, there’s no way it can stop him from getting his beloved chicken parm, either.