Allergies drove Poti into hockey

New York Islanders defenceman Tom Poti. Photo courtesy of newyorkislanders.com

New York Islanders defenceman Tom Poti. Photo courtesy of newyorkislanders.com

JON COOK -- SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 5:31 PM ET

TORONTO -- The majority of allergy sufferers find relief in a Kleenex box, not a penalty box.

Most of us are driven to sneezing, wheezing and scratching, not skating, passing and shooting. We find sanctuary in a warm bed, not in a cold hockey rink.

Not New York Islanders' defenceman Tom Poti. His allergies drove him to become a hockey player and in return the sport likely saved his life.

Growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, Poti suffered from asthma and severe food allergies.

"Everything my parents fed me would make me sick," said the now 6-foot-3, 210-pound blue-liner. "My pediatrician told them to go see an allergy doctor, who did a bunch of tests on me and found out exactly what I was allergic to."

Peanuts, chocolate, fish and MSG - not the Rangers' home rink - are all potentially lethal for Poti. They can instantly send him into anaphylactic shock, which could kill him within minutes.

Doctors advised Poti's parents to put him into sports as a way to strengthen his lungs to combat the asthma and effects of various allergens.

"Hockey was the most controlled environment," admitted Poti, "It wasn't outside with the fresh-cut grass playing baseball, or the dust and the dirt running around a soccer field. You had to endure a little bit of cold, but it wasn't that bad."

Poti learned to skate in a few months and then played on a team, where he fell in love with the game. When he turned 15 he stopped playing other sports, namely lacrosse, to concentrate full-time on hockey.

The last time Poti had an attack was in college, nearly a decade ago. That one was brought on by simply answering the phone in his dorm room. His roommate, unbeknownst to Poti, had been eating a peanut-butter sandwich and had handled the receiver before him.

"I had a reaction just like that," recalled Poti, who now carries what he calls an 'Epi-Pen' - a syringe filled with the drug epinephrine - with him at all times. "I can touch chocolate, but if I was to touch fish or peanut butter I would have a reaction. You have to be careful. That's why I always have my Epi-Pen with me - it's always in my pocket. I always have it no matter what, because it's a lifesaver."

As kids head back to school this week, Poti is making the rounds, educating them about the dangers of food allergies and how they can avoid life-threatening attacks.

According to Anaphylaxis Canada, more than 640,000 Canadians suffer from severe allergies that can lead to anaphylactic shock and 90 per cent of all fatalities could have been avoided had the victims been carrying epinephrine.

A new study by Toronto's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine found that teenagers are more likely to suffer a fatal attack, because they are less likely to carry epinephrine on them. The study also found that more than half of teens with severe food allergies admitted to purposefully eating unsafe foods, so as not to appear "different" from their friends.

"It's crazy to do stuff like this," said Poti. "It's basically like saying you're going to be in a car accident today and not wearing your seatbelt. Ninety per cent of the time the epinephrine can save you, but most of the kids think it's uncool to carry the needle with them or tell their friends they have allergies and can't eat certain foods. I'm here to tell them that it's more uncool to be dead."

Poti hopes his efforts help get the seriousness of food allergies more out in the open and reduce the stigmas attached to their victims.

The world of competitive sports can be harsh, with players trying to use any edge. If Poti has been mocked on the ice for his allergies, you can imagine what kids say to each other on the playground.

"People have said stuff," admitted Poti, who was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the third round in 1996. "There's always going to be those people out there who are going to criticize you or make fun of you and do whatever, but at the same time there's a lot of other people that are willing to help you and be concerned about it and help you along the way."

Poti said educating those around him - family, friends, teammates, coaches and trainers - about his condition is just as important as the epinephrine.

"Everyone knows," said Poti, who has had seven different coaches during his eight years in the NHL, "so if Bob is eating a peanut-butter sandwich and I'm in the training room and I don't see him, they let me know. That's why you have to educate your friends to kind of be a second set of eyes for you."

After three and a half years of educating teammates and staff with the Rangers, Poti will have to start all over again with the Islanders, who signed him to a one-year deal in July.

The transition will be eased somewhat by the fact Poti has already played, at one level or another, with fellow Islanders Rick DiPietro, Mike York, Shawn Bates, Chris Simon and Joel Bouchard.

"I'm sure that most of the guys know I have allergies."

Still Poti will likely be wiping down the phone before making any calls, while on the road with his new roommates.


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