22-year-old defenseman Alex Vlasic has not been able to eat gluten since he was diagnosed at 13, which was tougher last season with Rockford but hasn’t been a big challenge this season with the Hawks.
- Ben Pope, chicago.suntimes.com 1
As a kid, Blackhawks defenseman Vlasic loved bread — so much that his parents often had to hide the basket at restaurants until the entrees came.
Then he turned 13, and one week changed everything. He was ultimately diagnosed with celiac disease, and he hasn’t been able to eat bread — or anything containing gluten — since.
Anyone who develops celiac disease beyond early childhood probably recalls some uncomfortable experiences with wheat before getting diagnosed, but the now-22-year-old from Wilmette has a particularly vivid and funny origin story.
“One night, I remember we ordered Domino’s pizza,” Vlasic said. “I had a game the next day, and, on the way to the game, my stomach was just killing me. [It continued] for two days straight. I went to the hospital. They ran some tests and did an MRI but couldn’t really figure out what it was.”
Vlasic and his mom, Tara, didn’t think much of it at first, so Tara gave him some Gas-X medicine — “I still remember it so distinctly, those little chalk tablets,” he said — and he played in the game anyway.
A few days later, at his sister Emma’s game, the saga continued.
“One of the moms brought these pumpkin cream-cheese cupcakes, and I buried like five of them,” he said, laughing. “I was making it worse, not knowing what it was.
“A week later, [the stomach pain] came on even stronger. I couldn’t even move. It was bad. I was crying nonstop, couldn’t get over it. We went to the hospital and had a bunch of things done, and they finally figured it out — which was nice because then I didn’t have to deal with the pain.”
At first, the diet change was difficult. Any foods with wheat, barley or rye as an ingredient — so much more than simply bread — contain gluten, and Vlasic had no pre-existing knowledge of what foods fell in that category.
He has adjusted over the years, though, and he now knows automatically and instinctively whether pretty much any given food is safe for him.
This season — his first in the NHL full-time with the Hawks — it hasn’t been a challenge at all. Vlasic credits Tony Ommen, who coordinates the Hawks’ logistics for flights, buses, hotels, meals and more on the road, for that.
Most meals are catered, and there’s a gluten-free option every time. After the team’s practice Jan. 23 in Seattle, for example, that option was a poke bowl with fish, rice (a naturally gluten-free grain) and vegetables.
Things weren’t so easy for Vlasic last season in the AHL with Rockford, where fewer meals are catered. His breakfasts on the road often consisted of protein bars he packed in advance, and considering how many calories he must consume each day to maintain weight on his 6-6 frame, that was not ideal.
And, occasionally, some gluten shows up where it’s not supposed to be — or something gets mislabeled as gluten-free — and Vlasic has to endure a bad night.
“I’ve just got to ride it out,” he said. “That’s what I’ve figured out is the best way to do it. By the time it gets into your system, you can’t get it out. Just take some Advil.”
For the record, he isn’t a big fan of gluten-free breads: “They always break apart. It’s a mess unless you get it fresh.”
Former Hawks forward Max Domi also has celiac disease — in addition to diabetes — and Vlasic was able to get some advice from him last year about navigating the professional hockey lifestyle with that restriction. Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko and Stars forward Ty Dellandrea are a couple of other NHL peers in the same boat.
On the ice, meanwhile, Vlasic will try to complete his impressive season throughout the Hawks’ 32-game stretch run, starting Wednesday against the Wild.