Before every practice, Alex Ovechkin is handed a “Tropical Creamsicle” smoothie, loaded with mango, pineapple, orange and coconut milk to make it tasty. But the most important ingredients are the ones Ovechkin doesn’t taste.
The Capitals’ team chef, Robert Wood, adds ginger and turmeric, both anti-inflammatories that are good for digestion and keep swelling down in joints. He makes sure to mix in Brazil nuts, a good source of selenium, which has antioxidant properties.
Ovechkin’s smoothie is tailored just for him based on the results of a blood analysis he and his teammates did before the season. Each blood sample went through a micro-nutrient test, a hormonal test and then an adrenal test, which allowed the Capitals to compile individualized supplement packs and make adjustments to diets.
The results led Nate Schmidt to eat bananas after games for more potassium. Jay Beagle eats half an avocado after practices for more quality fat. Braden Holtby added more olive oils and walnuts to his diet for more magnesium.
The Capitals hope that becoming more sports-science savvy can help them take another step forward.
“You know, salary cap, you can only spend so much, so how can you get an advantage?” Coach Barry Trotz said. “You can get your advantage scouting, coaching, development and giving your players the sports science of it, everything from nutrition to biomechanics. And that’s what you can use for your advantage.”
When it was his turn to provide a blood sample, Schmidt had Holtby with him, needing the support because of a fear of needles. Holtby helped distract him with a story while Schmidt tried to keep his squeamishness contained. He had undergone a similar blood analysis when he was in college, so after getting past the initial discomfort, Schmidt was happy to see his list of deficiencies was lower than the last time he had been tested.
“You’re a little more apt to believe somebody when they tell you something and then all of a sudden, they bust out your blood-work sheet and your levels are just through the roof in something and bottomed out in another,” Schmidt said. “Those numbers don’t lie.”
The Capitals felt comfortable because they saw the process work for a teammate last year. Troy Brouwer, now with the St. Louis Blues, had a blood analysis done, and learning he was deficient in certain areas explained why he occasionally felt worse than his teammates.
For several Washington players, that was the first time they saw that kind of testing in hockey, and Brouwer’s positive response to it intrigued them.
The micro-nutrient test reveals vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The hormonal test examines testosterone ratios. The adrenal one also involves hormones, but it determines whether cortisol levels and the like are up because that could impair performance. Based on the results, David LeMay, a physician the Capitals hired, then made recommendations for each player.
A team of strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish, athletic trainer Greg Smith, nutritionist Sue Saunders and Wood then considered the best ways to improve certain areas for certain players. Sometimes, it was as simple as adding Brazil nuts to a smoothie or walnuts to a salad, but players also received pill cases with specific supplements and prescriptions.
The feedback has been that players feel better this season, “but then again, who knows? It could be just because we’re winning,” Smith said. Seeing the results of blood tests on a white piece of paper with certain columns and rows highlighted also caused players to be more mindful about what they eat away from the rink.
“It’s probably a good wake-up call for some guys, to be honest with you,” Brooks Orpik said. “They’re probably a little scared when they see the results. I think it’s good. Getting that information is probably something guys don’t have beforehand, so they probably have no idea what they’re high in or low in.”
The point is that stabilized micro-nutrient and hormonal levels will help the Capitals recover better after games during a lengthy season and potentially prevent injuries. Wood sneaks freshly ground spices, such as turmeric, into the made-from-scratch meals for the team because of the anti-inflammatory properties.
“Overall, they’re getting the amount that they need without having flavors they’re not comfortable with,” Wood said. “If I go overboard with one thing, they’re not going to eat it. . . . Food can be medicine, but it doesn’t have to taste like it.”
The Capitals started providing breakfast and lunch at the rink about six years ago, hoping to control two-thirds of a player’s everyday diet. Last year, Washington did blood analysis for a couple players experiencing fatigue, and the organization decided to do it for the whole team in early October. When the halfway point of the season arrives, there will be another round of blood analysis to examine the progress.
Smith said some teams take it further than the Capitals, with heart monitors and sleep monitors. Washington wanted to take incremental steps to see what would work and what wouldn’t before doing more next year.
“There’s going to be teams that do certain things better, but overall we want to be one of the teams that they go, ‘The Washington Capitals do it right,’ ” Trotz said. “That gets around to the players, too.”
Body weight is often measured after games to examine how much was lost, especially if an arena is warmer than usual. If there’s a big change, like a loss of 10 pounds over the course of a game, Trotz might cancel the next day’s practice and opt for a light workout instead.
He was hopeful the blood analysis could help explain some performance drop-offs. Nemish said a player hypothetically low on B vitamins and magnesium could recover more slowly, which then could negatively impact sleep. Or a lack of sleep could be the cause of certain deficiencies, like low testosterone.
“You wonder why a guy can’t play a back-to-back,” Trotz said. “You know, he had so much energy last night and he’s not even in the same area, his game has fallen off so far — is that mental, or is that physical? Sometimes it’s physical. Players’ bodies don’t metabolize carbohydrates as quickly and stuff like that, so how can you help that?”
Karl Alzner said he and a few other Capitals recently had a discussion about the new supplements they’re taking. Is it really working and making them feel better? He said his energy has been better, but could that also be because of a spread-out schedule to this point in the season? In the end, they shrugged and figured it definitely wasn’t hurting.
“The decision we came to is that even if it helps us 1 percent, it’s worth it,” Alzner said. “I’m going to go ahead and say it’s helping a little bit more than 1 percent.”