Hockey players often joke about the rugged nature of their sport by touting the popular mantra, “Give blood, play hockey.”
But when Boston Bruins right defenseman, Nick Boynton, was diagnosed with diabetes five years ago at age 19, it was hard for him to stomach the blood glucose tests and shots his condition required.
“At first I couldn’t really picture giving myself a shot,” Boynton says.
Boynton was diagnosed during the summer while working on his parents’ farm in Canada. The muscular 6-foot, 2-inch National Hockey League player normally weighs around 215 pounds. But when he started feeling tired and sick and was losing weight— 30 pounds to be exact—it finally prompted a visit to the doctor.
“The doctor misdiagnosed me as a type 2 and gave me pills. I didn’t get any better,” he says. “So I went down to Boston, where I was trying out for the Bruins and training to get ready for the Boston Bruins training camp in June of 2000. The doctors in Boston started me on insulin.”
The Tough Get Tougher
Boynton was a quick study in learning how to give himself injections and blood glucose tests to control his diabetes, perhaps because of his experiences on the ice. And now he’s even tougher for it.
“Now I’d just rather do shots myself—for any kind of shot,” says Boynton, a native of Nobleton, Ontario. “When I get stitches or anything from a doctor, I would rather do it myself.”
First-Round Pick Teams With Diabetes
By learning to control his diabetes from the start, his condition never controlled his career.
In fact, his diabetes may have enhanced his athleticism by making him more conscious of his diet and workout regimen. Boynton has twice earned the distinction of being a first-round pick. The first time he was the Washington Capitals’ first pick, ninth overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. When contract negotiations failed, the physical and offensively talented Boynton re-entered the draft. The Boston Bruins grabbed him as the team’s first pick, 21st overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.
Boynton joined the Bruins full time for the 2001-2002 season, in which he scored 18 points to go with his plus-18/minus rating in 80 games.
Last season he recorded career-highs in games (81), assists (24) and points (30). He tallied three multiple point games and scored points in consecutive games on five different occasions through the season. Boynton played in his 200th NHL Boston Bruins game on December 27, 2003, at Tampa Bay, and he played for the Eastern Conference Team at the 2004 NHL All- Star Game in Minnesota.
Active in the Diabetes Community
In addition to his professional hockey career, Boynton also actively helps with the Joslin Center for Diabetes in Boston. Boynton says he considers himself fortunate in his professional hockey career with the Bruins, and also for the many opportunities he has to work with children who are diagnosed with diabetes.
“It surprised me how many kids there are with type 1 diabetes. I knew nothing about the disease until I was diagnosed,” he says. “It’s amazing—I get so many letters from the kids at Joslin, and I appreciate all the support I get from them, it’s really nice.”
Exercise Strategy—A Winning Combination
Boynton recently started using an insulin pump to manage his diabetes. And, he says, it makes a huge difference, especially with his challenging schedule of practices, travel and games.
“Now it’s like night and day. I feel great,” Boynton says. “The pump really helps my blood glucose control. Before using the pump, once in a while I’d have a 240 or a 300. But with the pump, I’ve been able to keep it closer in check.”
At first he didn’t like pumping. But it didn’t take long to get used to, says Boynton, who had been taking eight daily insulin injections of rapid-acting insulin plus the basal insulin Lantus.
“I never felt like I had anything wrong with me, then all of a sudden I had this connected to me all the time,” he says. “But after the first couple of days, I loved it. It makes things so much easier. It is so unbelievable not having to take my needles into the bathroom before meals all the time.”
Boynton recently achieved an A1C of 7.6% by combining his rigorous workout schedule with a tried-and-true restaurant routine, frequent blood glucose monitoring and fine-tuning his new insulin pump. He says he expects his next A1C test result to be even lower now that he has started the pump.
“My basal rate is at one unit per hour, and I average a total insulin dose of about 50 units a day,” he says. But workouts burn a lot of glucose, so that’s when my insulin requirements go down quite a bit.”
A Professional Athlete’s Advice
“My only advice to other young athletes would be to find a level that works for you, especially for training. Make sure your blood glucose is at the level you want it by testing often,” Boynton says. “I make sure I test a lot. That’s one thing I do that’s very important, because if I’m low, then bad things are going to happen out on the ice. I find out what works for me with food and test my glucose as often as I can.”
Mary Milewski is a Connecticut-based freelance writer for print and broadcast media. She has a master’s degree in journalism and has lived with diabetes for 15 years.
Nick Boynton and Life on the Road
The Boston Bruins frequently travel, and life on the road has its challenges.
Boynton says that eating meals on schedule can get complicated at times. But after years of this, he has established a routine and usually tries to eat “quite a bit, with several meals throughout the day.”
“Eighty percent of the time when we’re on the road, I eat at restaurants,” he says. “I’ve gotten used to what certain foods do and how they affect me. I stick to the same restaurants. I’ve really gotten it down at this point.”
“Once I learned what different foods do to me and how the combination of exercise and foods works, it became pretty smooth sailing,” Boynton says. “I go low once in a while after games and practices, but I feel myself getting low, so I can usually catch it before I run into any problems.”
Keeps BG Between 130 and 140 Before Practice
Schedules vary throughout the year, Boynton says. In the game season, it’s very different.
“We practice from 10:00 a.m. to noon, and I like to have my blood glucose at around 130 to 140 going into workouts,” he says. “I detach my pump for workouts. It’s only been three weeks, so I haven’t started using the temporary basal feature yet. For now, I disconnect the pump when we skate or when I go to the gym.”
The players always go to lunch after practice, he says, and following a set schedule is not an option when the team is on the road.
Game nights are different.
“We skate in the morning, so I’ll eat a pre-game meal at around 1 p.m. Then I’ll go home and sleep in the afternoon. We play at around 7 p.m., and I won’t get home until 10 p.m. for dinner.
day meals usually feature chicken and pasta, he says. “I go to the same places and stick to the same foods that work for me on those days. I test before and after each time I eat and before I work out. I want to know I’m at a good level to ensure I don’t go out on the ice with a low.”
Being prepared with snacks during workouts and having teammates who understand his diabetes are added measures Boynton takes for safety. His roommate knows how to help Boynton should he experience low blood glucose when the team is on the road. And, Boynton says, during practice there’s always Gatorade or juice on the bench. The training staffalso is aware of Boynton’s diabetes and how to work with him.
“I like to drink regular Coke when I have lows. Also a little juice helps me. We always have Power Bars and juice with the team.”