Penguins' Vitale took different route to NHL


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Three is a young age for retaining memories, but Joe Vitale has a fuzzy recollection from that time.

After having two life-saving kidney operations, he was the first ambassador for the St. Louis chapter of the Children's Miracle Network at age 3 and got to welcome Marie Osmond to that city, meet "Lone Ranger" star Clayton Moore and throw out a first pitch at a Cardinals game, the latter a big deal in that baseball-crazy city.

"I remember seeing Fredbird [the mascot] and the crowd," Vitale, a rookie center with the Penguins, recalled after practice Tuesday at Southpointe.

Vitale, 25, has taken a somewhat unconventional journey to reach the NHL, overcoming the early kidney troubles and coming from an area that is not a hotbed for pro hockey talent.


Today

Game: Penguins at Colorado Avalanche, 9:08 p.m. today, Pepsi Center, Denver.

TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), http://penguins.nhl.com.

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Peter Budaj for Avalanche.

Penguins: Are 8-4-1 vs. West. ... Among NHL leaders with 720 hits in road games. ... Tyler Kennedy has 4 goals, 5 points in past seven games.

Avalanche: Is 8-4-4 vs. East. ... Last in NHL with team 3.38 goals-against average. ... Last in league in penalty-killing at home, 72.5 percent.

Of note: Colorado's eight-game losing streak is its longest since moving from Quebec in 1995.


Because of a lengthy list of injuries to forwards, the Penguins are fielding a lineup studded with recent call-ups from the American Hockey League. Vitale made his NHL debut last week and is expected to play in his fourth game tonight at Colorado.

Although he vaguely remembers a time he was a minor celebrity as a toddler, the past several days have been indelible.

In a span of about 72 hours beginning Thursday night, he played in his first NHL game, a 2-1 overtime home win against Los Angeles; got his first point, an assist, and got into his first fight Friday in a penalty- and brawl-filled, 9-3 loss against the New York Islanders that sparked a lot of controversy; was on a team bus Saturday that hit a car in Manhattan, forcing the players, in their gear, to grab cabs to Central Park for an outdoor practice; played Sunday in a 5-3 loss to the Rangers; and flew back to Pittsburgh.

"It was a wild weekend, but it's been a lot of fun," Vitale said.

Vitale, in his second full season as a pro, isn't a sniper -- he had eight goals, 27 points in 50 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before being recalled -- but he is built strongly at 5 feet 11, 205 pounds and does a lot of things well.

"I can't speak enough about what he's done," said winger Brett Sterling, who came up with Vitale, Ryan Craig and Nick Johnson.

"His points maybe aren't where Craig's or Johnson's or mine are, but he has done great things. He's an unbelievable [penalty-killing] guy and energy guy. He's led our [AHL] team by example."

Not bad for a kid who started off as a follower, a tag-along when older brothers Sam and Charlie began playing hockey.

Joe Vitale often was a couple of years younger than his teammates back then, and he began to go away to summer camps -- a family joke maintains that Mary Anne and the elder Sam sent their six children to summer camps so they could have some peace.

"We were pretty much playing year-round, which was pretty unusual for kids from the midwest," said Joe, whose Christian Brothers College High School won three state and one national championship.

Eventually, he went to Minnesota Hockey Camps, run by Penguins amateur scout Chuck Grillo and, after one junior season with Sioux Falls, was picked by the Penguins in the seventh round of the 2005 NHL draft.

He played four college seasons at Northeastern under Greg Cronin, a former Islanders assistant and AHL head coach. A teammate was Wilkes-Barre goaltender Brad Thiessen.

Vitale got an unwelcome reminder of his early health problems when he had a CAT scan a couple of years ago following a burst appendix.

"They saw that my right kidney was operating at about 10 percent and the left one is about double size, taking on twice the load, but it's working fine," Vitale said.

"They told me, 'You run a risk every time you get cross-checked there.' But I love hockey. I don't want to stop playing hockey. There's risk in anything."

It was his left kidney where doctors found an obstruction just after he was born. He had surgery at 3 weeks and at 13 months at Cardinal Glennon, a children's hospital in St. Louis. Doctors believed if his problem hadn't been identified and corrected, he wouldn't have made it past kindergarten age.

He and his family made enough of an impression that he was chosen for his Miracle Network ambassadorship and his parents remain involved with Cardinal Glennon, but little Joe was having a bad day on his big day with the Cardinals.

"I was really cranky. I didn't get a nap. I loved my naps when I was a kid," said Vitale, who grew up to play a sport where athletes routinely take afternoon snoozes on gameday.

"I was over 10 pounds when I was born, so I was always hungry and I was always tired. But my dad straightened me out right before I had to throw the ball, so I put on a smiley face, and it worked out well."

So far, so has the career of the hockey player from the baseball town.

"They told me, 'You run a risk every time you get cross-checked there.' But I love hockey. I don't want to stop playing hockey. There's risk in anything."


For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721


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