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Vitale Overcomes the Odds

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Joe Vitale was born August 25, 1985. But early health issues in his infancy created rocky times for his parents, Sam and Mary Anne Vitale.

"Joey, when he was born had two kidney problems. He had two surgeries," 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.’

“I just keep thinking about that. The doctor was right."
Indeed, Joe Vitale grew up to be a tough, strong man. For empirical evidence, just take a look at one of his shifts.

Vitale goes full speed and plays a rough, physical game in the most competitive league in the world – the National Hockey League.

“He’s as blue collar as they come,” assistant coach Tony Granato said. “He’s going to compete and battle and pay the price. He’ll do whatever it takes.”

Vitale, who is in his first full NHL campaign, knows that the key to his success resides in the sweat he pours out from every shift.

“There’s a lot of talent in this room, a lot of talent in this league. God didn’t give me the most talent as far as that goes, so I feel like I have to work a little harder to keep up,” he said jokingly. “It’s a good mentality. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, so I have to keep going.”

That tenacity and spirit earned the 26-year-old St. Louis native a two-year contract extension with the Penguins through the year 2013-14 with an average annual value of $550,000.

“It feels good. We’ve been talking for about a week now,” Vitale said. “To wake up this morning and get it all official felt good.

Vitale was a three-time high school state champion with Christian Brothers College in St. Louis, Mo. (courtesy of Sam and Mary Anne Vitale)
“At the beginning of the All-Star break they said they wanted to do something. There wasn’t too much negotiating. Both parties wanted to get it done. I know I wanted to get it done and I’m glad it worked out.”

It’s been a long and hard-fought road to get to the NHL for Vitale. Entering the 2005 NHL Draft, Vitale was so convinced that he wouldn’t be drafted that he instead went to church, where he received a call that the Pens selected him 195th overall in the seventh round.

Vitale, who won three high school state championships at Christian Brothers College, attended Northeastern University. Upon graduating, he expected to start his post-hockey career. But instead was given an opportunity to prove what he could do in the American Hockey League in 2009.

“Signing out of college, that was something I wasn’t sure would happen,” he said. “They gave me a contract to come in and prove myself in Wilkes-Barre.”

After two-plus seasons in WBS and a brief nine-game taste of the NHL last season, Vitale entered 2011 training camp hoping to gain a permanent spot in the NHL. Vitale not only earned a spot on the roster, but has been a regular in the lineup.

“Getting the call at the beginning of this year saying I would be going to Vancouver, that was a special moment,” he said.

“Who would ever have guessed,” echoed his father Sam. “It’s just all a matter of work ethic, having a passion for something, a love for something, a desire and saying what one man can do, another man can do."

There were many ups and downs for Vitale in his journey, but the hard work and relentlessness has made him truly appreciate his accomplishments.

“It’s been a long road. I’ve had a lot of support,” he said. “They’ve given me a great opportunity here.

“You get through those days with people and family support, my wife especially. It’s good to reflect on that and be appreciative of the position you’re in.”

And Vitale won’t let himself get comfortable with his new contract. He’ll continue to be the same type of player he’s been his entire career.

Want proof? When asked if his coaches ask him to skate through a brick wall Vitale replied:

“Absolutely. Anything to stay here.”

A young Joe Vitale throws out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game (courtesy Sam and Mary Anne Vitale)

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