Former Penguins forward Joe Vitale endured months upon months of fallout – physical and emotional — from a concussion and eye injury he got in October 2015 that ended his NHL career.
Finally, there were a couple breakthroughs that have allowed him to get back to his family and his life and start to look to his future.
Vitale touched base with “a bunch” of others who had dealt with concussions. One was his former teammate who also had a long ordeal with that kind of brain injury, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
“I reached out to Sid about a year into the injury when I was not getting better,” Vitale said.
Crosby hooked Vitale up with specialists from the Carrick Institute, and he went through a rehab program in Georgia with the institute’s Nathan Keiser.
“I did see a lot of relief with some cool things they did down there,” Vitale said. That included the whole-body gyroscope, a computerized rotating chair – or, as those who followed Crosby’s recovery might remember it being called, the spinny thing.
“We tried getting on the ice, but I wasn’t ready,” Vitale said. “Dr. Keiser did some great, great things.”
Custom Glasses Help
The other breakthrough, one that helped his damaged vision, came after what Vitale considered a caring gesture by the Arizona Coyotes, where he was under contract through the 2016-17 season.
After he got hurt, Vitale remained in the Phoenix area and occasionally visited the locker room. That brought on a set of stresses beyond the severe concussion symptoms.
“The team is always asking how you’re doing. They need to know if you’re going to be better soon,” Vitale said. “The guys are like, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’ You come around the room and you feel kind of judged because it’s a head injury.
“There’s no broken bones. There’s no timeline. Is he hurt? Is he not hurt? You start feeling that guilt. Do they not believe me? It’s hard to explain how I’m feeling. No MRI, no CAT scan, no doctor is going to give me proof of what I’m going through, but it’s real. That starts messing with your head.”
Vitale had a frank conversation with Don Maloney, then the Coyotes general manager. He told the GM that it was difficult managing his concussion symptoms with his large extended family – he is one of six siblings – back in St. Louis and his wife, Brianna, trying to manage things with three young children in Arizona.
“I talked to Don and told him I didn’t have any support other than my wife and we weren’t doing well,” Vitale said. “He was very, very generous and made arrangements where I could go home to St. Louis during the last year of my contract and recover there. That support being in St. Louis, my family, that was a great thing that he did, and that really, really helped me.”
Being back home led him to specialists at Washington University, a prestigious school in St. Louis similar to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh that specializes in medicine, among other things.
There, Vitale was fitted with special glasses that had a prism-like left lens that synced the vision between his injured left eye and his right eye. His improved vision seemed to also help with the headaches and other concussion symptoms.
“That was a big moment, when I realized I can manage this a little better now,” Vitale said. “It was a dark 2 ½ years. I’m just kind of coming out of it.”
He was able to get back on the ice without getting nauseated, as long as he’s wearing the glasses, and he’s now coaching a Triple-A team of 13-year-olds and enjoying it immensely. You had better believe he tells them all about Crosby’s incredible work ethic.
He also has a little hobby-side job baking and selling bread. He learned the craft years ago from his father.
Appreciating Life Again
He’s reached the stage of appreciating life for what it is. He can drive. He can enjoy watching his kids’ soccer games.
“Am I 100 percent healthy? No,” Vitale said. “But looking back on what I went through, I am so grateful for the life that I have now with the kids and my wife. We have a great life. I’m extremely blessed.
“That’s not to say that every day is great. I do wake up and when a hard weather front is coming in, I feel it, a lot of pressure. It kind of comes and goes. It’s been a long recovery. You learn to deal with it and be grateful for the good days.”
He thinks about Brianna, who cared for Joe and their three young children, all of whom were under 6 when Dad got hurt.
“It was a lot for her,” Vitale said. “We’ve been so fortunate to be so much stronger since that — because of that. I could have seen it go the other way. I’ve seen it go the other way for so many people who have been through what I’ve been through. You’ve just got to hold on tight. It doesn’t just affect you; it affects everyone in your circle.”
As frustrating as the concussion and eye injury were, and even though it happened in a fight during a game, Vitale holds no grudges. Nor does he climb on a soapbox about the dangers of playing in the NHL.
“It happened. It’s part of the game,” he said. “It wasn’t like someone jumped me or blindsided me. I willingly went into it knowing this is a fight. People can get hurt. That’s the game of hockey. I think that’s the risk we all run when we play the game.
“People ask me all the time, it is better or worse that your career ended on an injury vs. you just weren’t good enough anymore. I think it can go both ways. At the end of the day it’s frustrating knowing that I think I had a couple good years of hockey years ahead of me. I don’t know about four or five years, but I think I had two or three years left. … There’s no easy way to go out, I guess.”
But there is the future, and Vitale is open to the possibilities. Maybe it will be coaching. Maybe it will be breadmaking.
Not only can he physically tolerate watching hockey again, but he can once again enjoy watching the Penguins – it was a little too painful to watch his former teammates win two Stanley Cups without him – and he has thoroughly enjoyed watching former Penguins teammate Marc-Andre Fleury reach the Stanley Cup final with the Vegas Golden Knights.
He’s a little conflicted, though, because of his relationship with Washington players and former Penguins defensemen Matt Niskanen and, especially, Brooks Orpik.
“There’s (former Coyotes teammate) Shane Doan and Marc-Andre Fleury, and then Brooksie is right under them as the greatest guys you played with. So it’s hard,” Vitale said.
That doesn’t affect his overall outlook.
“I’m trying to stay positive every day,” he said. “I pray about it every day. I’m also very, very thankful for my family and the world and the life that I have.”
Vitale paused when contemplating his age.
“I guess I’m 32,” he said, laughing at his uncertainty. “That’s not a concussion thing; that’s a dad thing, a guy thing.
“All in all, humpty-dumpty is back together again, I guess,” he added, eliciting a laugh and then an apology for laughing from this interviewer.
“It’s OK,” Vitale said. “I can laugh at it now, too.”