The Real-Life Diet of Kaapo Kakko, the New York Rangers Rookie Who Eats Gluten-Free

New York Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko doesn’t remember the exact date. It was five, maybe six years ago, basically a lifetime for someone who’s 18 years old.

Five, maybe six years ago, still living in Finland (where he was born and raised), Kakko went to the doctor for a routine checkup. He swears he didn’t feel sick, didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary. His blood tests came back with surprising news: He had type 1 diabetes and celiac disease.

Kakko remained under the watchful eye of doctors for almost a week. He really wasn’t ill, he says, just learning how to mindfully alter his diet and day-to-day lifestyle in light of his diagnoses.

Five, maybe six years later, Kakko, the No. 2 pick in the NHL Draft, is chatting with me in the Rangers locker room. It’s mid-December of 2019, and Kakko’s boyish face is the only physical reminder of his youth, given his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame. I tell him I have a bunch of food allergies, and thus have an idea of what it’s like to deal with dietary restrictions, especially the anxiety they can cause. But Kaako insists those fateful lessons from his doctors were more than enough to quell his fears and keep his pro career hopes on track. Though he’d barely visited America prior to being a top-two pick, he’s found the adjustment—at least food-wise—to be seamless.

For his rookie campaign, Kaako is staying with a billet family in Westchester County. He’s learning how to speak fluent English, and insists on doing our interview sans the team translator. But on the ice, the transition has been less smooth. After scoring Finland’s clinching goal in the gold medal game of the 2019 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, Kakko was drafted by the Rangers with the expectation that he’d be an offensive threat. That may have been a bit premature: After a three-game stretch in November when he put up five points (including three goals) in three games, Kaako has fallen off, as has his playing time. He’s indicated that he’s frustrated with his performance, but not deterred. All things considered, that’s a healthy response for a teenager, who, it bears repeating, was born in 2001.

Below, Kakko expounds on his diabetes and celiac diagnoses, his favorite gluten-free offerings (including Finnish McDonald’s), and his favorite ways to relax before and after a game.

GQ: Can you walk me through a typical game day?

Kaapo Kakko: We have a morning practice. I wake up at 7 a.m., because we have our practice in [Manhattan]. Before practice, we have breakfast in the locker room, usually an omelette and a little bit of bacon. Maybe some gluten-free bread too.

Are you a morning person? Seven in the morning sounds rough for an 18-year-old.

No, no. It’s always hard. We have a 40-minute practice, and then I eat at the rink. It’s usually gluten-free pasta and bolognese. Then I go to a hotel in the city and sleep all day until it’s time for the game. I eat a little bit, like a piece of bread. Then we have the game, I have one more meal, and then sleep. I can eat pretty well after the game. It’s the same as before—maybe some beef, chicken, gluten-free pasta and bolognese.

How have you adjusted to food options in America?

It was what I expected. It’s been so easy to find gluten-free food.

What sort of food did you eat growing up?

I like meatballs and mashed potatoes. It’s good food over there in Finland, but my diet is almost the same here.

Were you worried at all about what your diet would be like out here?

No, because I’m with a family that helps make sure I eat well. But if I was on my own, it might be different.

So you’re not a good cook?

No, no. Not so good. It’s good to be with a family for my first year. And there is a chef who helps make meals for me too. Before the season, the Rangers asked what I wanted to eat, and I said the same things I ate in Finland.

Have you gotten to try any fast food here?

Well, there is fast food in Finland too. There are a couple of good places like McDonald’s. But I can't do it too much.

I’ve heard McDonald’s and other fast-food places are better in other countries. Is that true?

Maybe, but it’s not much healthier in Finland. But everything can be made gluten-free at McDonald’s in Finland if I ask it, so sometimes I do spend time there. [Ed. Note: Finnish McDonald’s does indeed offer gluten-free options, including gluten-free buns.]

What’s your favorite McDonald’s meal?

Big Mac. It’s classic.

After you were drafted, was there something in particular you wanted to improve on in the off-season?

I wanted to get a little bit faster. That’s the first thing. So there was lots of running and jumping off the ice. Lots of sprints. And of course, I wanted to get stronger.

I know you said you don’t remember exactly when you were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and celiac, but do you remember how you felt when you got that news?

When they said it, I didn’t even know what celiac was. It was a little hard, I remember. I didn’t expect it. But over the next couple weeks I tried learning about celiac and gluten-free food. I learned it wasn’t so bad.

Did gluten make you feel sick when you were growing up?

Actually no. I know most people feel ill, but I didn’t.

Were you worried at all at the time that this might affect your ability to be a professional hockey player someday?

I think diabetes was a bigger thing. It took some time to adjust, but it’s turned out to be not so bad. And celiac, it’s very easy. I know so many guys who also eat gluten-free, including one of my friends. You get into a normal routine of what you eat, when you practice, and you figure it out.

What are some stress-relievers for you off the ice?

Playing PlayStation with my friends back home in Finland. Lots of NHL and FIFA.

I assume you play as the Rangers so you can use yourself—do your friends ever try to steal the Rangers from you?

[Laughs] Yes, they do that a lot. I also like watching Finnish TV and movies. But right now, there are not so many good Finnish TV shows. I have tried some English TV shows too.

Do you have any pregame routines? Meditation, maybe?

Actually, no. A couple years ago, I tried yoga, but it’s not for me. I’m not very flexible. I do like playing soccer with my teammates before the games in the locker room. But that’s the only thing.

What would you say to others who play sports and are growing up with diabetes or celiac?

When I got it, I thought, can I play anymore? But I trusted myself and kept going. If you trust in yourself, then it’s easier. You can play hockey and do whatever you want to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Real-Life Diet is a series in which GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in between about their diets and exercise routines: what's worked, what hasn't, and where they're still improving. Keep in mind, what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.

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Originally Appeared on GQ