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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

A Hunger to Play
Dietary restrictions have not stopped Oilers defenseman Tom Poti

At 22 and in his second NHL season, Oilers defenseman Tom Poti
is cagey beyond his years. He's a deft poke checker, passes with
precision and is so savvy in his positioning that Edmonton coach
Kevin Lowe calls him "unfailingly reliable." Poti has performed
so well that through Sunday he was ranked eighth in the NHL in
playing time, with nearly 27 minutes per game. The guys ahead of
Poti on that list include elite backliners Chris Pronger, Ray
Bourque, Rob Blake and Nicklas Lidstrom, and Poti is easily the
youngest among the top 15 in ice time. There could be a Norris
Trophy in his future.

Yet for those who know Poti well, such as his father, Emil, the
most remarkable thing about the Oilers defenseman is that he's
on the ice at all. From about the age of 18 months--the time he
stopped using baby formula--Poti has battled bizarre and
frightening food allergies. With little warning his face would
become badly swollen, or he would break out in hives and rashes.
Over the years the Potis identified the perilous foods as, among
other things, nuts, chocolate, fish and monosodium glutamate, a
preservative commonly referred to as MSG. When he ate any of
those foods (or foods with MSG), his throat would swell nearly
shut and he would have to be hospitalized.

As a kid Poti brought his own cake to birthday parties; as a
teenager he lugged an equipment bag full of food with him on
hockey road trips. In the spring of 1996, during his senior year
at Cushing Academy prep school in Ashburnham, Mass., he almost
died while eating with buddies in the cafeteria. "There was
almond flavoring in the rice, and I didn't realize it," says
Poti. "All of a sudden I could barely breathe. A nurse there
injected adrenaline into my thigh, which saved me before I got
to the hospital. Now I carry adrenaline and a needle wherever I

Poti's seemingly fragile health contributed to his slipping
precipitously in the '96 draft. Weighing only 175 pounds at the
time (compared with 215 now), Poti was ranked among the top 15
prospects by NHL Central Scouting. However, after talk of his
allergies circulated, the Oilers were able to steal him in the
third round.

Since reaching the NHL, Poti has avoided allergic reactions and
built his strength by subsisting largely on plain pasta, meat
without gravy and cereal. "When I'm out with the team, I have to
go into the kitchen and talk to the cook," he says. "I can't
risk anything."

On Christmas day, toting a syringe full of adrenaline, Poti went
to the home of teammate Bill Guerin, who was hosting several
Oilers for a feast of pork roast, potatoes and corn bread. Poti
huddled over his sauceless pasta. "When I met him last season, I
worried," says Lowe. "Not anymore. He's got an inner strength
that drives him. The way he plays makes the worry go away."

Let the Games Begin
NHL and the Olympics

As the NHL weighs whether or not to send its players to the 2002
Olympics in Salt Lake City--final negotiations with the
International Ice Hockey Federation and the IOC should take
place later this month--here's our recommendation: By all means,
send them. The Olympics remain a key opportunity for the NHL to
showcase its talent to a far wider audience than its core fans.
Just as in Nagano in 1998, the Games could field highly skilled,
highly entertaining all-star teams from Canada, the Czech
Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. In '98 the gold
medal performance of the Czech team, led by Penguins winger
Jaromir Jagr and Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek, provided the most
stirring hockey of the year.

Of course, not everything went smoothly in Nagano. The 14-hour
time difference between Japan and the east coast of the U.S.
meant that TV audiences in North America saw little live action.
What's more, neither the U.S. team nor the Canadians won a
medal, and the American contingent further embarrassed itself
with boorish behavior that included players' trashing a hotel
room in the Olympic village. U.S. left wing Keith Tkachuk summed
up the Olympic experience as "a waste of time." Participation in
the Games also forced the NHL to interrupt regular-season play
for 18 days, and many players complained that the league's
schedule, rejiggered to make up for the lost time, was too
compressed and exhausting.

In Salt Lake City, on the other hand, games will be played at
reasonable hours for North American viewers. As for the
scheduling problems, the NHL should consider two sacrifices:
Don't break for the All-Star Game that year, and lop four games
from each team's regular-season schedule. Those changes would
cause short-term financial loss, but the potential long-term
benefits are incalculable.

An Excellent Adventure
Well-Traveled Rookie

Many minor leaguers change addresses more often than they do
sweat socks, but few have bewildered the postal service as much
as 23-year-old defenseman David Van Drunen. When Van Drunen made
his NHL debut for the Senators against the Maple Leafs on Dec. 13
in Toronto, he donned his 11th sweater in just over two years.
"Sometimes I run into a guy and I think, Hey didn't I play with
him in...?" says Van Drunen. "There's no way you can keep
everyone straight."

From October 1997 until he was called up by Ottawa, Van Drunen
toiled with teams in Worcester, Mass.; Hershey, Pa.; Baton Rouge;
Detroit; Portland, Maine; Saginaw, Mich.; Dayton; Cincinnati;
Mobile; and Grand Rapids. The worldly backliner praises Mobile
for its rabid fans, hails Baton Rouge for a night he enjoyed,
besotted but chauffeured, during Mardi Gras and lauds Hershey
because "the whole town smells like chocolate." Then there's
Toronto, which Van Drunen remembers most fondly even though he
played just seven shifts there, including one during which he
says he "got crushed between two big men wearing white."

Van Drunen has since been returned to Grand Rapids, where he was
still playing at week's end. "The moving around has been O.K.,"
he says, "but it'd be nice to settle down somewhere. Especially
if that somewhere were Ottawa."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Despite severe food allergies, Poti has stayed strong enough to be among the leaders in ice time.





In 1997 the 27-year-old was released by two clubs partly
because, at 5'10", 175, he was deemed too small. But over the
last two years he's had 58 goals, and 15 more this season.



Last season the 34-year-old was traded partly because, at 5'8",
167, he was thought unlikely to maintain the 24-goal average of
his prime. But he had 20 in 1998-99 and 17 more this year.

The Verdict: Ronning's an invaluable leader for the Predators,
but we'll take Whitney, who should have several good years ahead
of him.