With 13 freshmen on its roster, the Northeastern University men’s hockey team was in a rebuilding mode this year.
Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Joe Vitale hopes to play a major role in the Huskies’ resurgence over the next few years.
Vitale, a 2005 seventh-round choice (195th overall), enjoyed a successful season for a very young Northeastern team.
“We have 13 freshmen, but they are not all in the lineup every night,” he said. “One of our goalies is a freshman and we have an all-new coaching staff. You hate to use that as an excuse, but it’s been a bumpy road this year. We are all excited about next year and the year following.”
With so many new faces, it was a challenge for the Huskies to rack up many wins – especially in the ultra-competitive Hockey East. Northeastern finished with a 3-24-7 record.
“As a team we’re very disappointed with how the season has turned out,” Vitale said. “We’ve relied on lot of young guys to carry us this year. The group of guys we have is unbelievable. If you would have told me back in September that we’d have this record, I would have been shocked. The biggest thing is confidence and losing that.”
Despite the team’s struggles, Vitale believes the Huskies have laid a solid foundation for many years.
“I think so. You look at the standings and you’d think there wasn’t anything positive about it,” he said. “There’s something about losing – you can let it get to you and bring you down or you can get the positives out of it. When you lose all these games, it makes it more special when you do win. Once we do start winning it will make it that much more exciting because we lost in the past.”
Vitale, a St. Louis native, made the jump to college hockey a positive one. He ranked second on the team with eight goals and tied for second with 16 points.
“I came right out of the gate and felt really good,” he said. “I kept up with the speed of the game. Playing in the USHL [with the Sioux Falls Stampede] really prepared me to play at collegiate level. It’s such a great league to be a part of.”
Vitale credits a lot of his success to participating in the prestigious Minnesota Hockey Camps, owned and operated by Penguins scout Chuck Grillo.
“I thought coming in here I’d really struggle like I did in the USHL last year,” he said. “I skated a lot over the summer with Chuck Grillo in his Minnesota Hockey Camps. I think playing in the USHL and going to Chuck’s camps were a recipe for success.”
Vitale, a 6-foot, 200-pound forward, likes to play an aggressive, physical style.
“I love to play physical. It’s something that’s in your control. Going out there and scoring a hat-trick, some luck has to be on your side,” he said. “I hit a lot and, if you do that, you find you’re doing a lot of things right. You get the other team off because no one likes to be hit. It’s a snowball effect – one hit, another hit, your team gets team fired up. It’s something I take a lot of pride in. I love throwing the body around.”
Being drafted by the Penguins was a thrill for Vitale, who is friends with fellow Penguins draft picks Alex Goligoski and Chris Peluso.
“It’s great. Obviously, college is a one thing and a lot of kids see college as the end of the road,” he said. “I have ambitions to go on. I was really happy to be drafted and really surprised to be drafted by the Penguins with all the great young guys they have. They are building something great and that’s exciting. My dream [of playing in the NHL] could be a reality some day. It just proves if you have a good work ethic and play hard, your dream could come true.”
However, Vitale is well aware he has plenty of work to do.
“I think my main goal still is to get quicker and quicker,” he said. “I need to focus on the first three strides. When I get up to my full speed and when I get engine going, I am really quick. That’s what hockey really is – three strides and stop. I really want to focus on explosiveness.”