By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Tom Poti is expected to lead the Washington Capitals in playing time most nights this season as he kills penalties, directs the power play and matches up against the opposition's best players.
So it's somewhat ironic that the Capitals' most relied-upon player on the ice also will be their most vulnerable off it.
Poti, a 30-year-old defenseman, suffers from asthma and severe food allergies. Peanuts, chocolate, fish, some herbs and spices and MSG, among other things, can be deadly.
Although Poti hasn't suffered a serious allergic reaction since using a product that contained coconut oil about six years ago, danger is everywhere, the risk always present.
"It was sunscreen and I didn't read the label thoroughly enough," Poti said as he knocked on the wood bench in his locker. "I went into shock. I've been lucky since then, I guess."
Actually, luck has little to do with it. It's careful planning, rather, that keeps Poti out of trouble.
"Basically, all his meals have to be specially prepared, with all clean pots and utensils," said Capitals head athletic trainer Greg Smith, who contacted the New York Islanders, Poti's previous team, shortly after he signed here in July to familiarize himself with the player's condition. "I have a list of things he likes to eat for his pregame meal, like chicken breasts, just plain, and a baked potato. It helps that he's been dealing with this for 10 years."
That means there will be two meals served to the players at Verizon Center and visiting rinks, on the flight home and in the team hotel: one for Poti, one for everybody else.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Worcester, Mass., native is on his own, though, when he dines out. He speaks directly to the chef each time, because he knows his life could depend on it.
"If I don't do it, I could be in trouble that night," Poti said.
But even that might not be enough. When Poti was in college, he picked up a telephone receiver that had been handled moments earlier by a roommate who had just eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He went into anaphylactic shock.
"It's scary," Poti said. "First you start to break out in hives, get all itchy. Then you get shortness of breath and you start to swell up. Ultimately, you can't breathe if you don't take that needle."
In addition to carrying an EpiPen, which delivers epinephrine through a spring-loaded needle, Poti also carries an albuterol inhaler for his asthma, the condition that helped introduce him to hockey at age 6.
"My pediatrician said it would be good for me to get into sports because it would help strengthen my lungs," he said. "The better shape I'm in, the easier it is for me to breathe. I tried all the other sports like football, baseball and lacrosse. But with all the pollen and fresh cut grass, it seemed like hockey was the best environment for me, inside a rink where nothing could get to me."
Poti said he immediately fell in love with hockey, then began taking it seriously in high school. He was drafted by Edmonton in the third round in 1996, and after playing two seasons for Boston University, joined the Oilers in the 1998-99 season.
Neither of his conditions, amazingly, have hampered his athletic career. In fact, Poti, who is entering his ninth NHL season, enjoyed a breakthrough on Long Island last year, recording a career-high 38 assists and six goals as the Islanders' No. 1 defenseman. He also led them in ice time, skating an average of 25 minutes 42 seconds per game, which ranked 11th among all NHL players.
Poti, whose deal with the Capitals pays him $3.5 million a season, knows he'll be asked to do the same here.
"I want to play my role as best I can," Poti said. "I want to put up some points, help the power play and on the penalty kill some, too. I just want to be a leader back there and help the Capitals win."
Capitals Notes: Left wing Alexander Semin suffered a deep cut above his left eye after crashing into the boards face first. The injury was not believed to be serious. Semin, Alex Ovechkin, Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov are expected to skip today's preseason opener against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C.