Winter Olympics 2022: Meet the 'quirky' goalie with the paleo diet and weird glasses who might lead Team USA to gold

George Walker IV/USA TODAY Sports

Team USA goalie Strauss Mann understands how he's perceived by others.

He'll spend five hours in the kitchen, preparing meals so he can maintain his strict paleo diet. He wears blue-light-blocking glasses on the bus in order to get a better night's sleep. The 23-year-old goaltender is known to seek out coaches that can help with certain aspects of his game, exemplified by last summer's sessions with a specialist that focused on opening his hips to improve his post-to-post mobility.

"Everyone that played with me knows me for my diet or my little habits. If everyone did it, then it wouldn't be a competitive advantage, would it?" he said.

Winter Olympics schedule | Medal tracker

The NY Post once labeled him "endearingly quirky."

Mann shrugged at the reference. "I'm OK with being a little bit different," he told ESPN. "Maybe that makes people label me a certain way."

The University of Michigan perceived him as a starting goalie. He was a standout for three seasons, culminating in a stellar junior year where he was a captain and a finalist for the Mike Richter Award.

NHL organizations perceived him differently. They saw his height, listed at 6-foot, and passed on him as being too small. Mann left Michigan before his senior season and took his talents to the Swedish pro league.

USA Hockey perceived Mann as an Olympian. The NHL opted out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics after the omicron coronavirus variant caused a material change in its regular-season schedule. Team USA needed goalies. Mann figured he had a shot at making the roster. USA Hockey was looking at college players and pro players overseas. He had been both in the last year.

"I was already thinking about [the Olympics], and then it became the only thing I could think about," he said. "It's the Olympics. Every kid watches it growing up. Every person. I had never represented my country at any stage. ... For me, at this point in my career, this is pretty special."

Especially when he was that kid watching the Olympics in Greenwich, Connecticut, wearing a Team USA Ryan McDonagh jersey while watching the Americans cede the gold medal to Canada in 2010.

"I cried when they lost in overtime," he said. "But it was really special watching [goaltender] Ryan Miller dominate in that tournament."

For one game, Mann played the part of Ryan Miller or Jim Craig for Team USA. His 35-save performance led the Americans to a Beijing Olympics preliminary-round victory over archrival Canada. That was an integral part of their 3-0-0 run to the top of Group A and earned this team, the youngest in the tournament, comparisons to the "Miracle on Ice" college kids who won USA Hockey's last gold medal in 1980.

"We have a lot of college guys, too. I don't know if it is the same," said Mann after the Canada game. "But we have a chance. We showed we have a chance."

Steve Valiquette, the former NHL goalie who has coached Mann since he was 13 years old, thinks he gives the Americans the best chance to win gold again.

"I'm telling you: This kid is a warrior of life. I love him. I love him more than anyone I've ever coached. I'm so proud of him because I know where he began," said Valiquette. "If you're a gambling man, put your money on him. He wins everywhere."

Mann was 13 years old when he met Valiquette, rather randomly at a Christmas party.

Mann's younger sister had a mutual friend with the Valiquette family. Mann had just made Triple-A hockey for the first time, with the Westchester Express.

"He was a chubby, short little kid that didn't come from a hockey family at all," said Valiquette, who began training him from the following summer on.

"He's helped me in a variety of ways," said Mann. "First and foremost, he helped me learn how to commit to the process and really throw all aspects of my life at it. To go from maybe 80 percent to 100 percent."

Valiquette is the CEO of Clear Sight Analytics and a leading voice in the goalie analytics movement. Mann has used some of that insight but hasn't waded too deep into the fancy stats.

"I think I'd get a little over my own head if I was like, 'Oh, I should have stopped this because only one in 30 go in from [this spot],' and this and that," he said. "But I think it's pretty cool to get some of his data and see how to play a 2-on-1. To see how the goalies that stop the most 2-on-1s actually stop those 2-on-1s. Then maybe I can learn a little bit from that, add things to my game."

Mann is constantly looking for an edge. Like the glasses he wears to help him sleep. There's science behind them, as filtering out blue light helps increase melatonin in the body and enables easier sleep.

With Valiquette, he wore swivel-vision goggles that were used on the ice to help with tracking pucks. "Imagine wearing a ski goggle that had little holes in the middle, so you can't see out of your peripheral. He would wear those on the bus," said Valiquette, who was always impressed with Mann's propensity for growth.

"He's able to change his body because his growth mindset is bigger than anybody's. He's got a stronger mindset to get better," he said. "From a personal performance and a player performance, he should be followed by anybody with a desire to play Division I or beyond."

In his freshman and sophomore years at Brunswick School in Greenwich, Mann was a junior varsity player. His junior season, he became the backup on the varsity team. For his senior year, it wasn't clear if Mann was going to be the starter.

"It took a lot of convincing to give him a chance," said Valiquette.

Mann's play in his senior season resulted in him winning New England goaltender of the year. His Mid Fairfield Rangers 18U AAA team won a national championship. That opened the door for him to try out as a walk-on for the Muskegon juniors team. John Vanbiesbrouck, then the general manager of that USHL team and now the GM of Team USA, loved him but didn't have any room on the roster for him. So he called the Fargo Force of the USHL and told them about this talented walk-on. Mann went to Fargo as a walk-on for the 2017-18 season, which began in October, and took over as a starter by Christmas Day.

Mann then received what Valiquette called a "soft partial scholarship" to the University of Michigan. By his third year there, he was the team captain. An opportunity to join an NHL organization seemed like a possibility. Valiquette did his part as a hype man. "I called everybody for this guy. Called every favor in," he said. "He's playing in Sweden right now because he couldn't get a deal."

Valiquette said that teams were hung up on Mann's size. There wasn't a goalie taken in last season's NHL draft who was shorter than 6-foot-1.

So it was off to Sweden, leaving NCAA hockey behind.

"For me, a lot of things went into it. A little bit of an unorthodox move. I just felt like I was ready. I didn't know right away when I decided to go pro that I would end up in Europe, but I'm just always looking to grow and develop my game. Thought I was ready to take the next step," said Mann.

He reached out to his former Michigan teammates as they were added to the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams following the NHL opt-out. He's close with Owen Power and Kent Johnson, who are playing for Canada. Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson are his U.S. teammates.

"It'll be nice to go back to the college days, I guess. I definitely feel like I've moved on from that, playing with all these pros now with families," he said.

Mann left Michigan at a fortuitous time. The Wolverines made the NCAA tournament last season but had to withdraw because of positive COVID-19 tests. The Ann Arbor News reported last month that the men's hockey program at Michigan is under investigation by the university for "attempting to hide COVID-19 cases" ahead of that tournament. There is speculation that the report, depending on what it finds, could jeopardize Michigan's status for this NCAA postseason and impact the job status of Michigan coach Mel Pearson, who has denied the allegations.

Instead of facing a cloudy postseason status, Mann has excelled in Sweden, playing on a first-place team in Skelleftea. He's 11-5-0 with a .921 save percentage and three shutouts.

Playing in Sweden has been a success, even if it's been a challenge to his infamously strict nutritional plan.

"I had it pretty perfect until I came here to Sweden," said Mann.

Strauss Mann's diet is the stuff of legend. It's been a subject of media scrutiny wherever he's played. One reporter at the Michigan student newspaper sought to follow that diet for 30 days, and reported, "My sight was a little blurry, I constantly felt like passing out and it was hard to think straight."

Mann began his paleo diet when he was 16.

"I wasn't overweight or anything, but I wanted to get into better shape. I found this meal plan at the gym. It was a habit that started to discipline a lot of areas in my life. I got in shape and started to really care more about sleep and training and video work and all of these other things," he said. "For me, it was a jumpstart to really focusing on hockey. Not long after that, results started to come."

No sugar. No olive oil for cooking. No dairy. No processed foods. No plastic containers. A lot of planning and a lot of understanding that not every trip will be paleo-friendly.

"A year ago, I would have been freaking out to be going [to Beijing]," he said. "I've had to accept that not everything is going to be perfect and to do the best I can."

This is a recurring theme for Mann: accepting imperfection.

He tried to convey that sentiment in an Instagram post that showed him meditating near a lake, quoted Pliny the Elder and adding his own thoughts: "Often, it's easy to get fixated on our desires, always wanting immediate success, happiness, and sunlight, if you will. But more and more it's become clear that the only way to reach true fulfillment is to create sunlight from total darkness."

Mann said it's essential to be honest about life's struggles.

"I'm just not one to shy away from the fact that not every day is perfect. There's going to be adversity. That's normal. If you're not experiencing that, or you're saying you aren't, you're probably lying," he said.

That was evident for Mann in the Canada game. He surrendered a goal just 1 minute, 24 seconds into the game, on a shot where he couldn't get his stick paddle down to the ice fast enough. It didn't snowball for him. The U.S. tied the game 1 minute, 10 seconds later. Mann was great the rest of the way.

There's no telling how much action Mann will see now that the Americans have reached the Olympic quarterfinals, with their first game scheduled for 11:10 p.m. ET on Feb. 15. He has that signature win over Canada to his credit. But goalie Drew Commesso played well in wins over China and Germany, stopping 53 of 55 shots. The 19-year-old could get the nod over Mann in elimination-round play.

Whatever happens, Mann won't allow it to define him.

Perceptions are what they are. But Strauss Mann knows who he is.

"It's just trying not to get too high or too low," he said. "That's easy to say, but it comes from every day trying to make sure that your value comes from who you are as a person and not as a player. If you really believe that, then a loss won't affect your confidence, and a win won't give you hubris."