Vitale reflects on moment that ended his career: 'It felt like a bomb went off in my ear'

Most would do anything to live the NHL dream, and Vitale did just that. But given the chance to do it again, he’d do it differently, even if that meant not at all
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Photo by Scott Rovak/St. Louis Blues

Photo by Scott Rovak/St. Louis Blues

By Étienne Lajoie

Joe Vitale had neverbeen hurt like this before. He’d fought 10 times to that point in his five seasons in the NHL, but the aftermath of this fight was different. His face was numb and his left eye hurt like hell. As he sat beside Arizona Coyotes teammate Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the penalty box, he knew something was seriously wrong but couldn’t communicate how badly he was feeling.

“I was just really sick,” Vitale said. “I knew I was just in so much pain.”

At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Vitale was no heavyweight, so when he took on Kevan Miller on Oct. 17, 2015, he was giving up at least three inches and five pounds to the Boston Bruins defenseman. But after being a healthy scratch in the first four games of the 2015-16 season, Vitale finally got into the Arizona lineup and was eager to stay. When Miller engaged him during a scrum after the whistle, in front of the Coyotes’ home crowd, Vitale willingly obliged.

Miller was punishing but, thankfully, not relentless. In the final seconds of the bout, after pounding Vitale with several hard shots, Miller’s knuckles finally met Vitale’s defenseless face one last time. It was the fifth and final blow. “When he hit me,” Vitale said, “it felt like a bomb went off in my ear.”

Vitale stopped and looked away. With his face numb, he gamely skated to the penalty box, feeling for his left eye as he went.

When the next whistle blew, Ekman-Larsson motioned to the referee to let Vitale go to the bench. An X-ray in the trainer’s room afterward showed an injury far more serious than what the trainers could deal with. “When I saw that punch, I immediately texted him,” said Kyle Kraemer, Vitale’s former teammate in high school and college. “I didn’t get a text back for a while, so I knew something was wrong.”

His temporal, jaw and orbital bones were all broken, and he sustained a concussion. He was taken to the hospital and spent three nights there. A CAT scan showed no bleeding in the brain, luckily. “I got hit so much throughout my career,” he said, “but nothing like what happened that night in October.”

In the months afterward, Vitale found little improvement. And about six months after that game, he realized his playing career was over. Along with nausea and headaches, he’d been experiencing spinning episodes during his recovery. One day, he was watching one of his three kids play soccer when things started spinning. The sun was out, and his head suddenly felt like it was swollen, making it difficult for him to watch. “I just had to retreat to my room,” he said, “and find darkness and silence.”

The spinning episodes continued until early 2018, when Vitale finally had what he described as a “turnaround.” He attributes it to special glasses he was given by a doctor – the sixth or seventh he’d seen, by his count – from Washington University in St. Louis, Vitale’s hometown. At that point in his recovery, almost two years after the fight, Vitale had given up on seeing another specialist but thought it couldn’t hurt. The doctor diagnosed an eye problem. “Your eye is not on the same level anymore, so that’s why it’s hard for you to pick up things,” the doctor told him. “Every time you don’t do that, your brain gets flustered and confused.”

Since getting his new glasses, Vitale has been sleeping better, and his overall quality of life has improved. Although his vision still isn’t perfect, he’s feeling more like himself, and the people who’ve long known him have noticed the change. “I’ve seen a turnaround in Joey’s mood, just in hearing his voice on the phone or in person,” Kraemer said. “Those glasses helped him out a lot.”

Despite visits to multiple doctors, Vitale is unsure if his symptoms (occasional queasiness and migraines, for example) are the result of the Miller fight or if previous concussions have also influenced his current state. As a seventh-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005, Vitale was never supposed to make the NHL, but he scratched and clawed his way through four years at Northeastern University and three years in the AHL with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, willing to do anything to make it to the big time. He finally made it nearly six years later, when he debuted with Pittsburgh on Feb. 10, 2011. As a fourth-liner, however, he had to keep laying it all on the line every game if he wanted to stay there.

Vitale feels the NHL has done a good job limiting head shots and believes players are taking notice of the league’s measures, such as harsher suspensions and hefty fines, but he thinks more needs to be done, especially from his former peers. He said players “at the pinnacle of the sport” should lead the charge when it comes to supporting retired players who suffer from mental illness and post-concussions syndromes. “If we want change in this game,” Vitale said, “I think it’s going start with stars who have that voice.”

Initially, Vitale was unsure if he’d ever get back into hockey, but he eventually started skating again, which “got that fire back in his belly.” It was an energy he hadn’t felt since playing – the same energy that made him a selfless, hardworking player.

Today, Vitale is back in the game on two fronts. He’s an assistant coach with the Carshield 2005 AAA minor bantam team in St. Louis and also the Blues’ new color analyst for their radio broadcasts.

The injuries he sustained that October night three years ago have had a major impact on Vitale’s life. The Miller fight has even made him question his career – and what he had to do to get there. “After what I’ve experienced, if I knew this heading into the league, I would never have fought, I would never have put my body or my head at risk,” Vitale said. “You do it as a young player. Why? You have a dream. You want to play in the NHL. It’s your goal. It’s all you’ve worked for your whole life. You’ll do anything to get in.

“Was it worth it? Absolutely not. Nothing is worth your health. Nothing is worth that. As great as hockey was – it was a dream come true, it was a wonderful time – nothing is worth feeling the way I did for as long as I did. I’m a father, I’m a husband, I have three young children. I have a whole life still ahead of me.”

This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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