As a diehard St. Louis Blues fan, Joe Vitale witnessed the start of many NHL games at the Kiel Center.
But as fate would have it, seldom did he make it to the end. That’s just the way it is when work forces your father to be an early riser.
And even though that was the norm for much of the young Vitale’s life, it was a different story on Jan. 12, 2012, the first time he skated as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins against his beloved Blues in front of a packed house, including 50 of his closest friends and family members, at the renamed Scottrade Center.
Even though Vitale made his NHL debut more than a year earlier, his first NHL game in St. Louis felt like another debut. Looking back at it now, it was a special night. Then again, every night in the NHL is special, and Vitale never takes it for granted.
It was several years ago, during his four-year career at Northeastern University, when he received advice from then Penguins’ scout Tom Fitzgerald about the importance of never forgetting who you are as a player.
Looking back, Vitale recalls that encounter with Fitzgerald, who is now an assistant to Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero, and uses his words as part of his daily motivation.
“‘That’s your foundation as a player, and as long as you work hard, everything else will take care of itself,’” Vitale recalls Fitzgerald saying. “‘Just one day at a time, work your [butt] off and things will work out.’”
After his four years at the Boston-based Hockey East school, Vitale went on to refine his game in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, playing for Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. It was there that he learned what it meant to be a professional.
“You’re playing with guys who, literally, this is how they provide for their family,” Vitale says. “It kind of made me take my game more professional from a personal standpoint, to do well for the guys next to me, who had much bigger priorities in life.”
While it’s true that a rash of injuries may have hastened Vitale’s path to Pittsburgh, it was his disciplined and hard-nosed play that made it difficult for the powers that be to send him back to the minors.
And along the way he adjusted his game to be better fitted to the pros.
“I used to run around just as fast as I can, 100 miles an hour,” Vitale recalls. “Being around these guys, they’ve taught me to slow the game down a bit, hold onto the puck, don’t be in such a rush to make a play.”
On a roster dotted with superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Vitale may never be a household name, but he has earned the trust of his head coach, Dan Bylsma, who was a similar type of player during his NHL career.
“He brings his NHL skill, his work ethic and tenacity and grit,” Bylsma says. “And he certainly brought that to our team in a third line, fourth line, checking role, face-off role, penalty-killing kind of role.”
Even with the backing of his head coach, Vitale plays every shift and every game like his NHL career could evaporate right before his eyes.
“There’s always someone out there fighting for your spot. You can never be complacent, and you can never take a night off,” he says.
“A lot of times, you come to the rink, and you’re like, man, your body’s worn out, your mind’s blown out and you just want to take the night off. And you have to find it in yourself to get up for that game because you know if you take one game off, that could be the last game you play for a long time.”
There may be some truth to that, but it’s clear that Vitale is not about to let his dream slip away without a fight. He knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the glass. That’s why he wants to enjoy the ride as long as he can.
“It’s not going to be here forever,” Vitale says. “It’s going to go by very, very quick. So I know when it’s over at some point, I want to look back and know that I enjoyed it.”