ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo recalled the day he was in the hospital with his childhood friend and the two were playing Pokemon.
Pietrangelo was 10; his friend Cosmo was 11.
As kids, they were supposed to be enjoying life without a worry in the world. But one day, Cosmo was gone; he succumbed to cancer, and Pietrangelo, who like many NHL players have stories to tell of experiences with the disease, was left to wonder why his friend was no longer around.
"That was the one thing I remember for some reason," Pietrangelo said. "We were playing Pokemon on the hospital TV. He was obviously sick at the time, but that was the one picture I still have in my mind 15 years later. That's the one picture I always replay in my mind.
"I picture my parents trying to explain what it is to me when I'm 10 years old. It's certainly uncomfortable and not easy. At that age, I just remember being with Cosmo one day and then the next day he was gone. … I still remember going to the funeral not really understanding what was going on. At 10 years old, you're still trying to figure it out. I remember seeing him in the hospital, I remember walking into the hospital, I remember my mom trying to explain it to me. You get glimpses once in a while and I see his parents when I go back home. Seeing them kind of brings flashes back. He actually passed away on my birthday, which was a double whammy. The birthday for me (Jan. 18) isn't always the most special day."
The NHL and NHL Players' Association's annual Hockey Fights Cancer initiative began Oct. 18 and runs through Nov. 7. Each NHL team will host a Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night; the Blues will host theirs Saturday against the New York Islanders.
Pietrangelo's experience goes beyond Cosmo. His fiancée Jayne's 6-year-old niece Ellie (the daughter of Jayne's sister) was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor, a form of cancer that develops in the kidneys of children, when she was 5. This happened one week after Seth Lange, who Pietrangelo met through the Blues and often paid hospital visits to starting when Seth was 14, passed away at 17 from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Pietrangelo shaved his head to honor Ellie, whose story has warmed the hearts of the family. And to this date, her recovery has been a positive one.
"She is one of the toughest kids that I've ever met," Pietrangelo said. "It's scary. You look back at pictures around Christmastime, you forget how bad she looked and how tough it was on her. You get back and you look at those and it makes you appreciate now the way she is and what we had more than ever. … I call her the little Jayne. She's like her little twin. We've got the pool, so they're always there, always at our house. We babysit. They're not my kids but they're the closest thing to it. I'm just looking forward to that day she takes the braces off her legs and she goes for a run and looks like she did before."
Seth, who needed a bone marrow transplant, did not have the outcome Pietrangelo and those close to Seth were looking for. However, Pietrangelo will always cherish the memories he has.
"He was 14, 15 when I got to know him," Pietrangelo said. "I would go to see him in the hospital. We would go there, play video games together, he would come to games. He's an older kid, so you had something in common. It wasn't long ago when I was that age, so we had something in common. That's a prime example of things taking a turn for the worse quickly. That was a very uncomfortable couple of days for me.
"Going there and seeing him and putting a smile on his face, there's nothing better than seeing that."
These days, Pietrangelo and Jayne spend time babysitting their nieces and nephews, including Ellie, and Pietrangelo gets to see Ellie play out the video game character she sees on a regular basis: her "Uncle Alex."
"For some odd reason, I don't know why, a 6-year-old girl likes to play on PlayStation and she likes to play me," Pietrangelo said of the NHL video game. "She likes being my character. My nephew doesn't even like doing it. She enjoys doing that, so I have to go upstairs, grab the PlayStation, bring it down, set up the TV.
"I'm the biggest sucker for the Disney Store too. If I'm babysitting them, if they just pull my leg, I go to the Disney Store. I've bought more toys for them than their parents have. I'm their favorite uncle, especially if I got to the Disney Store with them."
Pietrangelo wears bracelets honoring Ellie and Seth. And when he takes the ice against the Islanders, he plays honoring his friends Cosmo and Seth. It makes what the NHL does with Hockey Fights Cancer especially meaningful.
"Our job is to create awareness," Pietrangelo said. "That's what this Hockey Fights Cancer is for, right? We're trying to create as much awareness as possible. It doesn't always mean donations, it doesn't always mean money. It means people going out of their way to help people. There's food drives, there's toy drives, there's so many different ways you can go and help someone. Something that's easy for us is hospital visits, going to see a kid who has cancer and putting a smile on their face. For that brief four, five minutes and that kid forgets what's going on in his life, when he or she sees us, that's what matters for us. That's what makes us feel good.
"Not all these kids are going to be as fortunate as we are; not all these families are as fortunate as we are. It makes you appreciate every day, especially when you're around them."