Kathleen Purvis

How do you feed a hungry hockey player?

Kyle Hagel is a fighter for the Charlotte Checkers, but he’s also a leader for the rookies.
Kyle Hagel is a fighter for the Charlotte Checkers, but he’s also a leader for the rookies. Kathleen Purvis

Kyle Hagel’s job is written on his face, in the white lines of old scars over one brow and a cheek, in the fresh cut across his nose and a split lip.

His wife, Jess, 22 weeks pregnant with their first child, pats his face and says he actually looks pretty good today.

Hagel, 31, is a veteran hockey player in his third season with the Charlotte Checkers. Getting and giving beatings is part of what he does: He starts the fights that cause excitement and rally the team. Fights are so important, there’s a website for it, hockeyfights.com. Hagel has a long list – 22 last season.

“His role with the team, he’s not the big scorer, he’s the guy who gets in fights,” says Paul Branecky, vice president of communication with the team. “Part of his role is leadership, on and off the ice.”

That leadership role is why I met the Hagels outside Trader Joe’s in the Metropolitan on a Tuesday morning. Off the ice, Hagel works with rookie players on life skills, particularly how to shop and cook.

His three subjects this morning are Roland “Rollie” McKeown, 20, from Toronto, Andrew “Potsy” Poturalski, 22, from Buffalo, and Haydn Fleury, 20, from Calgary. They’re all in their first year with the Checkers, and they’re all a long way from home.

In Canada, players may be drafted at 16 and leave home to live with host families, called billets, while they train. They don’t get a chance to pick up many life skills, like eating a balanced diet.

“They live, eat and breathe hockey,” says Branecky, who invited me along on the shopping trip.

And yet hockey, with its bruising style and fast pace, takes a lot of stamina. Players can lose a couple of pounds in a single game.

“They need to learn how (to eat),” says Hagel. “You need to fuel your body so you can recover. You can tell the guys who figure it out are going to be good throughout the season.”

Hagel starts them at Trader Joe’s for organic meats and affordable produce. He and Jess get most of their fruits and vegetables there, and go to Costco once a month for everything else.

Grabbing carts, McKeown says he already knows one rule: His trainer taught him to shop the outside edge of a store for fresh food before hitting the aisles in the middle. He quickly grabs a big bag of small oranges, plus bananas, strawberries and grapes.

Hagel introduces them to spaghetti squash, easy to roast and shred, then top with sauces. Poturalski and Fleury, who are roommates, also grab a butternut squash. They’ve got a spiralizer, “one of those things for making vegetables into noodles.”

Hagel steers them toward raw nuts, not too salty: “I take these on planes all the time.” Half of their 70 or so games are away, so they fly a lot.

“Do you guys like cottage cheese? I eat tons of it.” Nah, no takers, although he does convince them to try the yogurt drink kefir, “for your gut.”

In the meat section, he lectures them on organic meats. In Canada, he says, he doesn’t worry as much, but American meat standards are looser. They all get packages of organic, skinless, boneless chicken breasts they’ll bake or grill.

How about a whole chicken? It’s a better deal. The suggestion gets blank looks from all three of them.

“We’ll work up to that,” Hagel says. “Baby steps here.”

On the grain aisle, quinoa gets a round of no’s. Instead, Fleury and Poturalski sneak off with Jess Hagel to hit the frozen pizza. Poturalski wants one with pepperoni.

“Let’s branch out,” she wheedles and talks him into a flatbread version with prosciutto, burrata cheese and arugula.

As they leave with their filled bags – $85 for McKeown, $150 for Poturalski and Fleury – the Hagels promise to have them over for dinner soon, to show them a little cooking. They’ll make them quinoa, for sure, eh?

Hagel will keep up the lessons as long as they show an interest. It’s a long season, he says. Bad eating habits particularly take a toll toward the end. It also will have an effect in the long term. He can tell the players who don’t take it seriously.

“It’ll show by their second or third year,” he says. “What they do away from the rink is just as important as what they do on it.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis