Hockey’s B.J. Crombeen Skates Ahead
Diabetes gives the Tampa Bay winger the discipline he needs to compete
Hockey players have to pay attention to a lot of numbers: time on the clock, weight lifted, sprints skated, shots blocked, and goals scored. B.J. Crombeen, 28, has an even more important number on his mind: his latest blood glucose reading.
Crombeen, who grew up near Toronto and now lives in Tampa, Fla., during hockey season, plays right wing for the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s also lived with type 1 diabetes since he was 9 years old. But Crombeen is the son of a professional hockey player (Mike Crombeen, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Hartford Whalers in the 1970s and ’80s) and a child of Canada. So there was never any chance that diabetes would make him step off the ice.
“My family never let me feel sorry for myself,” Crombeen says. “If [diabetes] was something you were willing to take on and manage properly, you could do anything.”
And the ice had been tested by pro hockey player Bobby Clarke, who was the first person with type 1 diabetes drafted into the NHL (as the 17th overall pick, in 1969). Clarke went on to win two Stanley Cups and three Hart Memorial Trophies (as most valuable player) with the Philadelphia Flyers. Crombeen knew it could be done.
It would take a lot of practice, though—and a lot of vigilance in managing his diabetes. “It was obviously a challenge at first,” he recalls. “As a 9-year-old kid, to give yourself a needle and manage your blood sugar … I’m sure it was a lot of work for my parents and the people around me. But right from day one, and all the way through, my family made sure I was staying on top of it and managing it properly.”
It paid off: Crombeen was drafted by the Dallas Stars as the 54th overall pick in 2003. He played for several minor league teams before moving up to the Stars and then joining the Blues (his dad’s former team). He was traded to Tampa Bay before the abbreviated 2012–2013 season and signed a two-year contract extension in spring 2013.
Crombeen has had the same diabetes routine for years, and he says maintaining that routine is what helps keep his blood glucose levels relatively stable, especially when he’s on the road. Forty-one away games each season—and more in the playoffs—can take their toll. Crombeen says the discipline of his diabetes regimen set him up to compete: “On game days I eat the same things at the same time and stay in constant contact with it. If you’re set in a routine, it becomes part of your daily life.”
Crombeen tests his blood glucose levels between 10 and 20 times on game days. He eats a bowl of oatmeal with a little bit of brown sugar and blueberries, a bowl of scrambled eggs, and a banana for breakfast. He uses insulin pens for his long-acting and rapid-acting insulins. After breakfast, the Lightning will have meetings and a quick, 30-minute skate. Lunch is prepared at the rink, and Crombeen will have a plate of pasta with chicken and a little bit of salad. After that, he can go home (or back to a hotel when on the road) for a quick nap. Then he heads back to the rink. He’ll have a small snack, such as a granola bar or piece of fruit, before heading back onto the ice for the pregame skate. As the game approaches, Crombeen checks his blood glucose levels more frequently. He tries to stay between about 108 and 144 mg/dl around game time.
“I never test on the bench, or I haven’t yet,” Crombeen says. “But I test two or three times between each period to see where I’m at and where it’s going.” He can correct with a sugary sports drink if he’s played extra shifts and is a little low. Then he’s back on the ice. Keeping up with his regimen has helped him achieve some pretty impressive stats: At press time, Crombeen had played 385 career NHL games, scoring 31 goals.
When he’s on the road, Crombeen packs like any other person with diabetes: If he’s headed out for a week, he brings a couple of weeks’ worth of supplies along with him. He always has a backup blood glucose meter that’s easily accessible.
Other players have asked about his diabetes, but it’s never been an issue in the locker room or on the ice. “I was always very open about it,” Crombeen says. “I didn’t hide it, and I wasn’t afraid to pull out my blood tester or needles or anything. I’ve never used it as an excuse or looked at it as an excuse. If you did that, I think some people probably would question it.”
In his time in the NHL, Crombeen’s been something of an enforcer—the guy teams call on when they need to rough up their opponents, grind out a tough offense, or bring more physicality to the game. At press time, the 6-foot-2, 209-pound winger had amassed 771 career penalty minutes in the NHL.
But Crombeen has a soft spot for other young athletes with diabetes and other chronic illnesses. He regularly volunteers his time for local American Diabetes Association and JDRF events. And he takes time to talk to kids and their parents.
“Whether they’re hockey players or different athletes or not athletes at all, I explain to them how I’ve dealt with [diabetes] and I always try to encourage people,” he says. “If you manage it, you can really do anything you want.”
It's Playoff Season!
See what’s in store for B.J. Crombeen and the Tampa Bay Lightning at lightning.nhl.com.