SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — More than a dozen Portland Pirates hockey players crowded around stainless steel tables Tuesday at Southern Maine Community College’s culinary arts center, learning to get as comfortable in the kitchen as they are on the ice.
The players chopped herbs and zested lemons as part of a four-hour cooking class organized by the Pirates and the team’s National Hockey League affiliate, the Phoenix Coyotes.
For many of the men — most were rookies in their early 20s — Tuesday’s class marked the first time they had cooked a healthy meal for themselves.
Chris Brown, a right wing from Texas, sliced scallions for a tilapia dish baked in parchment paper.
“Here’s the lemon zest,” said Brendan Shinnimin, a center from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“Do they go into this bowl?” Brown asked Jill Hannaford, executive chef at SMCC’s McKernan Hospitality Center, who led the group of 14 young men — with a firm hand.
Hannaford nodded, then proceeded to pour a small capful of white wine over each of the fish fillets.
“It’s a party now!” one of the players shouted out.
Kim Warger, one of several culinary arts students who assisted in the class, cleared dishes and surveyed the men’s knife skills.
“I’ve seen worse,” she said.
With an average age of 22, the Pirates team includes many players who are living on their own for the first time after staying with host families as junior players, said Chris Knoblock, director of communications for the Pirates.
“Even the veteran guys still don’t have that much experience living on their own,” he said. “A veteran in the [American Hockey League] is 24 or 25 years old. Also, it’s normally without a college education or having been focused for their entire lives up to this point [on hockey]. It’s not a skill that’s emphasized. You don’t have your practice then go home and learn how to cook.”
Tom Powers, strength and conditioning coordinator for the Coyotes, said he’s accompanied young players to Whole Foods to point out healthy foods and explain how to combine ingredients into a nutritious, filling meal.
“A lot of the guys don’t even know how to make scrambled eggs or an omelet,” Powers said.
Players typically consume a generous 3,500 calories on game and practice days, he said. Once they learn how to prepare meals that will fuel their performance, many players are happy to ditch takeout pizza and greasy diner food, Powers said.
“They all want to get to the next level, and [eating healthy] can give them an advantage,” he said. “They’re all ears.”
Ethan Werek, a 21-year-old center from Ontario, said he tries to eat healthily, but he often resorts to ordering takeout from local restaurants or hitting up the prepared food bar at Whole Foods.
“Now hopefully I won’t be supporting the Portland economy so much,” he joked.
Werek said he expects to cook many of the dishes on Tuesday’s menu, which also included lemon-thyme chicken with grape tomatoes, zucchini and feta; Teriyaki beef kebabs, blueberry clafouti and a rustic apple tart.
This is the first year the team has organized a cooking class for players, Knoblock said. It’s too early to say whether the class will become an annual event, but when players eat nutritiously, the team wins, he said.
“If they’re taking care of themselves, it’s one less thing the Coyotes have to worry about,” he said.