Were you to catch most grown adults in an honest moment, chances are they would not be proud of their diets during their college years. Yes, they probably remember the time fondly – late-night pizza and fast food are staples of most 20-somethings living far from home for the first time - but less fond are memories of the extra few pounds packed on thanks to the diet.
For young AHL players hoping to one day make their NHL dreams come true, the situation is magnified: many aspiring hockey players get their first taste of independent living once they reach the pro ranks, but the consequences of not taking care of one’s body are severe. With even the most diligent gym rats, taking care of yourself away from the rink is a learning curve, and one that Rockford IceHogs center Brandon Pirri has learned to take seriously.
“Because it’s such a long season, what you do away from the rink really matters,” says Pirri. “It’s easy to get lazy and eat bad food. Eating right and making the right choices is incredibly important at any level, but especially in the pros.”
Those are not the words of a typical 21-year-old, but Pirri is not typical. When Pirri joined the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, he was just 19 – fairly young even by AHL standards – but now in his third season, the 2009 draft pick is impressing with both his play and the mentality he brings to the rink every day.
Though Pirri and the IceHogs started the season slow, both have improved greatly since the middle of October: Pirri has scored in seven of Rockford’s last eight games going into Wednesday night’s meeting with Peoria, and the IceHogs have won five of those contests. Pirri also leads the team in points (11), goals (6) and power-play goals (3), and he’s among the team leaders in plus/minus rating.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of hard work, and a lot of second and third efforts from Brandon this year,” says IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent, who was an assistant when Pirri joined the team in 2010-11. “He’s becoming a man now – when he joined us at 19, he was still a boy. Mentally, physically, the whole package has grown. He’s really bought into what we’re trying to do, which is playing strong at both ends of the rink.”
“At the beginning of the year, it wasn’t clicking for us a team or for me personally,” Pirri says. “I’ve been doing the same things – trying to work hard and it’s a matter of getting lucky bounces. If you do the right little things, you get rewarded.”
Just as coaching has taught him the proper ways to conduct business on the ice, Pirri has also received some of the most sought-after advice in terms of how he works off-ice. This offseason, Pirri joined former NHL player and fitness guru Gary Roberts’ summer development camp, which has also been a training ground for All-Stars Steven Stamkos and James Neal, among others. Pirri says Roberts has given him a positive role model for how to live the day-to-day life of a pro athlete.
“It’s a good experience for me to be around all of those guys for longer periods of time. I get to take little things from them and I try to do the best of my abilities while I’m here,” he says. “Gary stressed that the most important thing you can do is eat healthy and clean, and it’s something I’ve tried to work on.”
“All of these guys have a good skill set, but now you have to take care of yourself off the ice,” Dent says. “You have to be a pro in every respect, and you have to learn to keep your body in top shape – not 6 months a year, but 10 or 11 months a year. Nutrition is a big part of it. You have to learn what to do in your downtime, since you’re only at the rink 3 or 4 hours a day. It’s about learning to use your time efficiently.”
“He definitely tries to bring Gary Roberts into the house,” Morin says. “He tries to eat healthy, but he definitely snacks too much sometimes. But it has gotten much better.”
While two years of professional experience hardly qualifies you for “seasoned” status, Pirri is one of the older IceHogs, and he knows that it’s time for him to take the next step in his growth as a hockey player.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an old guy – I’m 21, but this is my third year and I can’t use my age as an excuse,” he says. “I know what’s going to happen down here, and it’s just a matter of doing my job and helping to be a leader for some of the first- and second-year guys. We need to let them know that we need to do our own jobs for the team to have a success.”
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