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Vitale's Long Road to the NHL

Thursday, 01.02.2014 / 2:00 PM / Features
By Sam Kasan

Joe Vitale was with his wife Brianna at the hospital on Feb. 9, 2011 to get an ultrasound of their first child when he received the phone call he waited 20 years to answer.

Placing the call was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes. And he had some good news.

“I got a call from ‘Hynesie’ that I got the call up (to the National Hockey League),” Vitale said. “We were both very excited. We got a great report from the doctor. Then I went straight to the rink to get my gear. It was a special day.”

Vitale made his NHL debut Feb. 10, 2011 against the Los Angeles Kings
(Getty Images)

Vitale, then 25 years old, traveled with his seven-months-pregnant wife to Pittsburgh. The following day he pulled on a Penguins jersey and made his NHL debut against the Los Angeles Kings, skating 11:39 minutes of ice time and leveling four hits.

Two days later, Vitale became part of the infamous Penguins-Islanders brawl game. Both teams combined for 346 penalty minutes. Vitale had his share when he fought New York’s Andy MacDonald.

The next day, Vitale dressed in his hockey gear, except for skates, and then boarded the team bus. The Penguins were scheduled to practice in Central Park. However, along the way the bus was in an accident and the team was forced to jump into cabs. Eventually the whole team made it and was able to practice on the outdoor ice.

Welcome to the NHL, Joe Vitale.

“I went to New York for my second game and there was a brawl that night. That was crazy. Then we had practice in Central Park,” Vitale recalled. “That whole weekend was really special.

“(Brianna) followed me to Pittsburgh and then New York. That whole weekend she was with me. It was a special time for both of us. She was biting her nails and on edge the whole time she was there, from what I found out later. Great experience. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

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Everything Joe Vitale has in life he has earned through hard work. Regardless of his circumstances, he’s always managed to overcome any obstacle.

Vitale has been a fighter since the day he was born.

Literally.

Joe Vitale won three Missouri state championships at Christian Brothers College High School
(Vitale family)

“Joey was born with two kidney problems,” Joe’s father Sam Vitale said. “The one thing I think about all the time is after his second surgery my wife and I were in tears and the doctor said, ‘Don’t feel so bad. Your son doesn’t know what he’s going through. One thing I’ve found out about kids at this age that have this kind of surgery is they grow up to be tough, strong men.’ The doctor was right.”

Vitale was raised in St. Louis, Missouri and played hockey at Christian Brothers College High School for four years from 2000-04. He served as team captain in his junior and senior campaigns and led the Cadets to three Missouri state championships, including one with his brother Charlie in 2001.

Vitale’s No. 16 jersey currently hangs in school history never to be worn again.

After high school, Vitale played one season with Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League in 2004-05.

Although most of the media attention surrounding the 2005 NHL Draft revolved around the Penguins drafting Sidney Crosby – and rightfully so – they did use a late-round pick to find another NHL talent.

Scouts with the Penguins saw potential in Vitale and the team selected him in the seventh round (195th overall).

“It’s fun saying you’ve been drafted in the same year as Sidney Crosby, let alone by the same team, and then to play with him almost 10 years later. That’s pretty cool,” Vitale said. “When it’s all said and done and hockey is over and I look back, it will hit me then.”

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Vitale left Sioux Falls to play college hockey with Northeastern in the fall of 2005. During his junior campaign in 2007-08, Vitale was named All-Hockey East Second Team and Northeastern’s MVP.

Joe Vitale (No. 26) playing college hockey for Northeastern
(Getty Images)

After his college career in 2008 Vitale signed an amateur tryout contract with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League in May. Though he only appeared in five regular-season games and 12 postseason contests, Vitale earned himself an entry-level contract from the Penguins.

Vitale became a full-time professional hockey player under the tutelage of then-head coach Todd Reirden and assistant coach Hynes. He played in 74 games for WBS in 2009-10 and won over the coaching staff.

“Joe is one of those guys with Todd Reirden in Wilkes-Barre as a head coach that developed into a go-to guy, shutdown guy, faceoff guy,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He got opportunities to come up and play.”

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Vitale arrived in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2010 for training camp. He got his first taste of NHL action in the preseason, and also his first taste of being starstruck when he lined up to take a faceoff against the Detroit Red Wings.

“I took a faceoff against Mike Modano,” Vitale said. “I have a picture with him when I was 8 years old. It was when he played for the Minnesota North Stars. He was a rookie. I met him. To take a faceoff against him, I had some goose bumps. I lost the draw and I was fine losing that draw. That was a pretty exciting one for me.”

Vitale had a superb training camp that September. Although the team assigned him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the conclusion of camp, Vitale left Pittsburgh with the belief that he would return.

“I played a preseason game late and I really felt I could play here,” Vitale said. “I had a meeting with Dan at the end of camp when he sent me to Wilkes-Barre and he said, ‘you’re capable of playing here. I feel comfortable putting you in a fourth-line spot at any point this year.’ That kind of confidence going into the season in Wilkes-Barre gave me the energy boost I needed to get through that season and eventually in February...”

…It all paid off. Countess hours spent on the ice or in the weight room, pushing his body beyond its limits and honing his craft, finally culminated with a phone call on that Feb. 9.

“It was always a dream for me. It’s hard to think that it would be a reality someday,” Vitale said. “I had great coaching, a great experience in college and with Todd in Wilkes-Barre, getting me ready for my first game.”

Vitale played nine NHL games that February before returning to finish the season in WBS.

Vitale had realized his childhood dream of playing in the NHL. A few months later he would fulfill another dream when Brianna gave birth to the couple’s first child, a beautiful baby girl named Summer.

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Vitale probably looked like a long shot to make the Penguins’ roster following the 2011 training camp. Even he believed so.

Joe Vitale playing amateur hockey in Alberta (Vitale family)

“I was expecting to get sent down to Wilkes-Barre and was hoping to get more games that year. That was my biggest expectation,” he said.

Vitale’s speed, tenacity and faceoff acumen during camp earned him a preseason game. And then another. And then another.

“I had a really good camp and got a lot of confidence,” Vitale said. “I played five of the six games. That was a great two-and-a-half, three weeks for me. We had a bunch of injuries at the time. It was a great opportunity for a guy like me to come in as a center and play some games and establish myself.

“I think that camp made the team for me.”

Vitale not only made the Penguins’ opening day roster for the 2011-12 season – he became a regular on the team’s fourth line alongside veterans Craig Adams and Arron Asham.

“Any guy coming in with his position, it’s a learning experience to figure out what the coach wants from you and how you have to play to stay in this league, trying to be in the lineup every night,” Adams said. “(Vitale has) done a good job of figuring that out.”

Vitale played in 68 games for the Penguins in that season, setting career highs across the board in goals (4), assists (10), points (14) and shots (70). The following year Vitale was once again a regular in the lineup, appearing in 33 of the shortened season’s 48 games in 2012-13.

“At the beginning of my career it was about playing one NHL game,” Vitale said. “I thought if I could retire with one NHL game I could hang my hat on that. One turned into quite a few. You have to pinch yourself in some moments. I’m just really trying to enjoy it right now because I know it’s not going to be here forever.”

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Vitale began the 2013-14 season in his usual spot, centering the team’s fourth line. However, his role quickly expanded, starting with logging more time on the team’s No. 2 ranked penalty killing unit.

But due to a rash of injuries inflicted upon the Penguins Vitale was playing an extended stretch on the third line as a winger. And with the recent injury sustained by winger Pascal Dupuis, Vitale has even seen spot duty on the team’s top line with Chris Kunitz and Crosby.

Joe Vitale's play has landed him some time playing on the team's top line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz

“This year from a fourth line center to being used on a third line right wing with Chris Conner and Brandon Sutter, he’s been able to go up and add that speed,” Bylsma said. “Really, I think the great thing that Joe has done is that he hasn’t changed his game.

“He’s gone in and added that speed and used his element to be effective with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz when he’s gotten that opportunity. You can see his speed as a fact when he’s a winger. You insert that into the top line and he’s been effective.”

Even though injuries have created the opening for Vitale, it’s his play that has earned him the opportunity for an expanded role.

“He’s probably playing as well as I’ve ever seen him play right now,” Adams said. “When he’s going well he’s using his speed really well. That’s what he has to continue to do. If there’s a chance to make a play, you make it. If he keeps his game going north-south and making simpler plays, more often than not he’ll continue to be successful.”

Vitale’s role continues to grow with the team as he grows as a player.

“I’m just trying to make the most of my opportunity right now; for me to do that I just have to play fast,” Vitale said. “That’s my biggest asset as a player. Anyone who plays with me knows my strength so they adjust their game accordingly, whether that’s putting pucks behind the defensemen or putting pucks to space because they know I’ll be coming though supporting with speed. If you play fast and play with confidence, which I have been lately, I’d like to think I can fit in anywhere.”

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Having grown up in St. Louis, Vitale saw his fair share of Blues games as a youth. He even played for the St. Louis Jr. Blues before leaving for Sioux Falls.

Joe Vitale youth hockey trading card (Vitale family)

His hockey career came full circle on Jan. 24, 2012 when the Penguins came to St. Louis to play the Blues. Vitale’s family, including 10-month-old Summer, and extended family were in attendance to watch him play in his hometown for the first time. (*During the Penguins' recent trip to St. Louis on Nov. 9 the Vitales, along with newborn son Harper, had the entire team to their home for dinner).

"My mom, dad, cousins, my wife and her family were there," Vitale said of his first trip back to St. Louis. "My daughter was in attendance for that game, too. She was a pistol up in the box running around. It was a lot of fun."

During his time in St. Louis as a Penguin, Vitale couldn’t help but reflect on the role his parents played in his reaching the NHL.

“You think back to all the sacrifices my parents made, and all our parents make for that matter,” Joe said of his parents, Sam and Mary Ann. “Getting the kids to the rink early, late and weekends. My parents’ lives revolved around me and my brother playing hockey. To say thank you and play in a game like that was a special thing.”

Vitale’s return also sent a message to aspiring amateur hockey players from the St. Louis area that shared the same dream as a young Joe Vitale.

“You look at the kids around St. Louis who have dreams and hopes of playing in the NHL, for me to do that and show them that through the system in St. Louis and hard work you can make it a dream some day,” Vitale said. “I’ve come across a lot of kids over the last four, five years, that’s all they want to do. I think me being out there gives them hope that maybe someday they can do it someday, too.”

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