Taking on new roles, being there for different teammates has suited Penguins forward Joe Vitale this season.
“I can’t complain about that,” Vitale said Thursday after practice at Consol Energy Center. “I don’t know who would. It’s an opportunity to get more ice time. Whether that’s on wing or center or however I can fit in and help the team win, I get excited about it.”
Being a player who has shifted from fourth-line center to third-line right winger to — most recently — seeing some time on the top line with center Sidney Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz hardly is the only challenging role Vitale fills, though.
He is well into his second season holding a position of authority, prestige and endless critiquing in the locker room.
Vitale is the team DJ.
When the Penguins are preparing for a game and the music starts with Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night,” that’s Vitale.
When coach Dan Bylsma walks into the locker room for a pregame meeting — as he will tonight before a home game against the New York Rangers — and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” is blaring, that’s Vitale.
“I’ve always appreciated music,” Vitale said. “I love learning about the history of bands.”
He got an iTunes account while at Northeastern and became the locker room DJ for the school’s hockey team. After he turned pro, he took the same behind-the-scenes role with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins affiliate in the American Hockey League.
When Vitale got to the NHL, the Penguins had a DJ extraordinaire in goaltender Brent Johnson. It didn’t occur to Vitale that he might serve in that role, but before the beginning of last season, with Johnson gone, Vitale was approached by then-Penguins winger Matt Cooke and asked to take over as the keeper of the soundtrack.
Vitale was happy to do so.
Johnson is now retired but left the team with a 13,000-song library he enthusiastically downloaded onto the locker room sound system. That’s overwhelming for Vitale, so he keeps about 1,000 songs on his own device, programs an order of songs to play and docks it on the Penguins’ system.
When the Penguins are on a winning streak, Vitale doesn’t alter the playlist. In fact, he said the only tiny downside to such streaks — the team has put together strings of seven, five and four (twice) so far — is that some players grow a little tired of the same songs in the same order.
The most daunting part of the job is trying to please all the players. Their tastes diverge from the ever-present foundation of classic rock into several directions.
There’s defenseman Brooks Orpik, who requests a lot of Pearl Jam, according to Vitale.
There are the French-Canadians. Vitale mixes in some techno, dance music for them.
For his own pleasure, “I’ll surprise the guys with a little Nelly, from my roots,” said Vitale, who, like the hip-hop star, is from St. Louis.
Garth Brooks makes an audio appearance for players such as center Brandon Sutter.
“He’s been pretty good. I like him,” Sutter said of Joey V. the DJ. “He throws in some country every now and again, which not a lot of guys do. I’m happy he does that.
“That’s a lot of pressure, being the team DJ. You’re under the spotlight. Some guys want certain stuff. Some guys tell him to change the song. I don’t think you’re going to be able to please everybody, but he’s done a pretty good job.
“It’s nice to have a good DJ, a guy that’s committed to it.”
Which Vitale is, even embracing the critiques.
“I enjoy getting guys’ feedback,” he said
Vitale took it as a show of support when defenseman Paul Martin gave him an iTunes gift card for Christmas.
Of course, Vitale doesn’t devote all of his time to the music. He also is dedicated to hockey.
This season, that has meant becoming a more well-rounded player after serving primarily as a fourth-liner.
“Whenever you can add something more to your toolbox, it makes you a little bit more versatile,” he said. “It makes you feel a little more needed as a teammate.”
The biggest change was going from center to right winger.
“It was weird seeing my name on the wing; my whole career it’s been in the middle,” Vitale said of the lineup posted in the locker room before games.
“I like it. I feel more energized on the wing because you’re not running around in the [defensive] zone as much. Whenever I do get the puck, I feel like I have a little more burst of speed, energy. I finish checks and can get in on the forecheck. I like that aspect of it.”
If he puts his mind to it, Vitale probably could find a song to express that feeling.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.