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Broadcaster Joey Vitale called a St. Louis Blues hockey game at Enterprise Center on Feb. 26. Vitale, a graduate of Christian Brothers College High School in Creve Coeur, played in the NHL before suffering a concussion in a fight which ended his playing career.
Broadcaster Joey Vitale called a St. Louis Blues hockey game at Enterprise Center on Feb. 26. Vitale, a graduate of Christian Brothers College High School in Creve Coeur, played in the NHL before suffering a concussion in a fight which ended his playing career.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Vitale relied on Catholic faith to get through challenges

Recovered from concussions, former NHL player enjoys new role as broadcaster

It seems Joey Vitale has a charmed life as a hockey player and now broadcaster. But his rise in the sports world meant a lot of hard work and overcoming major challenges, requiring the personable Vitale to rely on his Catholic faith.

When Vitale played for Christian Brothers College High School hockey team in St. Louis, he won three state championships. He won a national championship with the St. Louis Junior Blues of the Central States Hockey League, received a rookie of the year and most valuable player awards from Northeastern University’s team and in 2009 signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL. He made his debut with the Penguins on Feb. 10, 2011, vs. the Los Angeles Kings.

Now he’s in his first year as a radio color analyst with his hometown St. Louis Blues on KMOX Radio.

Joey Vitale played for the Pittsburgh Penguins for 4 seasons before signing with Arizona before the 2014-15 season.
Photo Credits: Norm Hall | Arizona Coyotes
“It’s been terrific,” he said of his new position, naming everyone from the team’s owners on down who’ve helped him in the transition.

He was hired to do the broadcasts in August, about a year-and-a-half after he officially left his playing days. “When my career ended, I went through a year of hard struggles with concussions and an eye injury from a fight that ended my career,” he said. “It was months of being in a dark place dealing with pain killers and other things to help my eye situation. And there was depression with the concussion. It was a very hard place.”

Trying to manage that, along with being a husband and father of three children under the age of 6, was especially difficult. But about three months before the Blues called him, his health improved with the help of a physician at Washington University School of Medicine who diagnosed his eye injury and prescribed prism glasses to alleviate his headaches.

When the Blues invited him to interview for the job, “it was right around the time I was praying a lot about what God had in store for me,” Vitale said. “Any retired athlete will tell you it’s a very hard chapter to go from what you loved doing for 30 years to going to something completely unknown, when you’re a nobody again and are figuring out what to do the rest of your life.”

It was “by God’s good grace” that he met with Blues lead broadcaster Chris Kerber for lunch for the interview “and we hit it off right away,” Vitale said.

His Catholic faith is a strong aspect of his life. He cites “a great upbringing from my parents, Sam and Mary Anne Vitale, growing up in St. Justin Martyr Parish, an Italian Catholic family where we put our values into three main things: God, family and pasta.”

Faith and family always has been at the core of school, sports and more. “I carry that through me. If I didn’t have this strong connection with God and all these wonderful things that come along with that idea, I wouldn’t have made it past high school hockey. It is so challenging and you’re so lonely on these road trips and playing juniors by myself at age 18, and then going to college in a city I’d never been to before. There’s so much turmoil and stress. The only way for me to manage and to keep it connected is through my faith and going to Mass every Sunday and receiving Communion.”

Vitale, now a member of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood, recalls in college going to and from the chapel near his campus, getting home exhausted from a road trip at 1 a.m. and trying to make it to the last Mass at 11 a.m. “because I knew that driving it all was God, and I wanted to do this for Him. I felt this was my calling.”

After the career-ending injury occurred on Oct. 17, 2015, when he was playing for the Arizona Coyotes, “I really grabbed hard onto my faith,” he said. “I was completely desperate. Anyone who really re-finds their faith, it’s usually through a very hard time where that tough moment humbles you in a way where you realize you’re not in control, you’re not the captain of your soul as you think you are. You’re actually very vulnerable and you’re completely out of control and have to lean on something.”

That empty space and humility allows God’s grace to come forward, he said. “That’s what happened for me. I was so desperate and so hurt and so damaged mentally, physically and emotionally that I came to the point where I had a huge empty pit in my life. Again, the unexplainable happened, and I really felt that God really fully came into my life and His unconditional love flowed into my life.”

Soon, he improved emotionally, slept better and began to tolerate sunlight again.

Going through tough times such as when the concussion symptoms were at their peak are “when God reveals Himself to you in a special way. And without those tough moments you maybe never would see Him,” Vitale said.

It’s nerve-wracking and scary to play hockey, being physical and playing with an edge before 18,000 people and millions viewing on TV, Vitale said. When a game started, he sought that competitive edge, but “it’s not like faith stopped. It’s not like God was removed from my life. When I put on that resilient armor for hockey, that’s when God was the strongest in my life. That’s when I needed Him most.”

>> Role models

Joey Vitale was inspired by many players in the National Hockey League.

Vitale was called up to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011, a team with perhaps the biggest NHL star, Sidney Crosby.

Crosby, who recently scored his 440th career goal and is on the verge of becoming the 48th player in league history to record 1,200 points for his career, was a good role model. “The values and virtues that he possessed every day — he has a genuine care for his teammates, he cares about the trainers, he cares about the janitors. He would be small-talking with people cleaning the room when most players wouldn’t even know their name,” Vitale said.

Another role model was Shane Doan, a teammate of Vitale’s on the Arizona Coyotes. Doan, who scored 402 goals for that franchise, “is a devout Catholic. He loves Jesus. Again, a player who’s a future Hall-Fame. Without the faith in his life, he would not have come close to what he has accomplished. He’s a great father, incredible friend and mentor to so many players,” Vitale said.

Vitale is proud to be part of a group of St. Louis players — Paul Stastny and Cam Janssen among them — who broke into the NHL about the same time. “We had good coaches, but also had each other,” Vitale said. “We competed against each other. We loved the game, loved going to the rink. We weren’t thinking NHL or college scholarships. Making it was just a byproduct of the passion we had.”

Hockey is a physical, demanding game, he said. Yet it is full of benefits for participants, developing them as people and teaching them how to stand up for others, he added.

>> Advice

Joey Vitale’s advice to youth athletes is that “it should always be fun.”

He quit hockey for a year in high school when he wasn’t having as much fun. His parents said, “OK, you don’t have to play if you don’t want to play,” Vitale recalled. His parents’ reaction, he said, was “the best thing that happened to me” because he came back to the game with newfound joy.

The vast majority of youth players he talks with agree that the mental side of sports is by far the most important factor to success, Vitale said. When he asks these athletes how much they devote to it, they shrug. “I started reading self-help books and jumped into the Bible at a youthful age,” Vitale said. “That all led to mental toughness, courage and strength through times of despair. A lot of players will just give up. It’s all that mental gumption, that faith that you have to build up. You’re going to be dealing with hard times. In this sport and every sport you’re going to fail way more times than you’re ever going to succeed.”

He recommends that youth athletes read more, work on achieving a mental edge and visualize how they’ll respond if they don’t make a team or have a bad shift. He asks, “How is your faith? Do you look to God when you’re struggling? Do you look to God when you’re thankful? These are things that helped me. Without it I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did. For me, it all starts with God, diving into the Bible and learning about Jesus Christ and how wonderful He was and what He stood for. You can relate that to your life and especially hockey.”

>> Colleagues’ praise

Joey Vitale brings a pleasant, knowledgeable voice to the game of hockey, his colleagues in the radio booth say.

Vitale can be heard on St. Louis Blues broadcasts on KMOX Radio, 1120 AM.

“Joey sounds like the guy you’d like to hang out with” at a game, said KMOX sports host Alex Ferrario, a parishioner at St. Martin of Tours in south St. Louis County.

His personality stands out whether on or off the air, Ferrario said. “He’s such a good person. He has an energy to him that makes everyone around him happy.”

Vitale brings the perspective of a native St. Louis and someone who played with the top players in the NHL, Ferrario added.

Blues play-by-play announcer Chris Kerber, said that “it’s been a great first year” with his broadcast partner. In the hiring process, Vitale’s former teammates and others who knew him spoke of “the quality of the person he is, and it’s a big reason he got the job,” Kerber said.

A St. Joseph in Manchester parishioner, Kerber said Vitale has lived up to his reputation, “a terrific person, family guy, hard worker, someone knowledgeable about hockey and entertaining.”

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