Tragedies color Alex Pietrangelo's outlook on life
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Four months ago in early December, Blues captain David Backes approached head coach Ken Hitchcock with a sensitive request. The previous day, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo had learned that Tyler Cragg, his longtime youth hockey coach and close friend, had died of brain cancer at age 44. The news rocked Pietrangelo, to the point that he found himself unable to speak when his father broke the news. Even Backes, who will serve in Pietrangelo’s wedding party this summer, noticed a change around the rink.
“This is hitting him pretty hard,” Backes told Hitchcock. He was asking if Pietrangelo, the Blues’ bedrock on the blue line and their leader in average ice time, could receive a day off to recuperate.
Pietrangelo played the night of Cragg’s death on Dec. 8, 2015, skating 24:08—a notch below average—in a home win over the Arizona Coyotes. But his mind was elsewhere: on the summers Pietrangelo spent training with Cragg even after graduating from the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, because Cragg always knew how to get him ready for the upcoming season. On the systems that Cragg named after beers, so the kids would remember better. Guinness was the heavy, aggressive forecheck and Coors Light was the light 1-2-2 trap. On the 2005 all-Ontario bantam championship in Thunder Bay, when the Jr. Canadiens faced a Markham Waxers squad led by Steven Stamkos. At one point during the game, sensing that his coaches were feeling the pressure, Pietrangelo turned around on the bench and told Cragg, “Don’t worry, we’ll take it from here coach.” Then he scored the game-winning goal.
“He always knew me as a player best,” Pietrangelo says. “He watched me grow. He’s always my biggest supporter too. That was the important thing.”
Hitchcock obliged Backes’s recommendation, so Pietrangelo awoke the next morning and, instead of heading to practice, went for pancakes with his fiancée, Jayne Cox. He tried to relax, an understandably difficult task. He says Cragg, whose age fell somewhere in between the players and their parents, had uniquely straddled the line between both groups, and was beloved by everyone. “We thought he was the coolest thing going on,” Pietrangelo says. Which of course made it even more difficult upon returning home over the All-Star break in late January, when Pietrangelo and his father together watched a videotape of Cragg delivering pregame speeches to him and his teammates.
“This was a lifelong friend, this was something where I was at the age where I knew the pain he and his family were going through,” Pietrangelo says. “That was probably the one that’s hit me the hardest, I’d say, in the last couple years.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first, second or even third.
In Dec. 2011, nine months after doctors diagnosed him with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, 14-year-old Seth Lange asked for toys to give sick children at the hospital instead of choosing a Christmas present for himself. Within three weeks, after his mother, Stacy Vogt, posted Seth’s request on Facebook and word spread, they had gathered enough donations to fill an entire truck. When pressed further on the Christmas issue—if there’s one thing in the world, what would you want?—Seth requested that a Blues player accompany him to the hospital to hand out the toys. He hadn’t been a hockey fan growing up, but he'd started watching St. Louis games in the hospital. That’s how he and Pietrangelo, at the time in the middle of what became an All-Star season with a fourth-place Norris Trophy finish, first met.
“When I saw him, something clicked,” Pietrangelo says. They played NHL video games at the hospital and wore funny wigs from Mardi Gras. Whenever possible, Pietrangelo brought Seth and his family to Scottrade Center, always meeting them afterward with handfuls of gear. When Seth needed a bone marrow transplant, the Blues organized an event at a home game for him and others to find donor matches. Over 75 fans registered.
“For him to actually take time out of his busy schedule, we always felt it was a privilege to us for him to come, and Alex always thought of it as the other way,” Vogt says. “It was amazing to watch those two interact. The conversations they had … if Seth was being silly one day and acting like a teenager, Alex was acting like a teenager too. If Seth was serious, Alex was serious. He just came in and it was never about Alex. It was always about Seth. And Seth always tried to make it about Alex.”
Which made the end that much more crushing. On Aug. 26, 2014, Pietrangelo and others visited Seth at his grandparents’ home, the street number of which was 27—Pietrangelo’s jersey. The night before, the Blues had unveiled their new jerseys at the season’s icebreaking event, which Lange was supposed to attend. Instead, his condition had worsened and doctors had released him from the hospital to spend time with family, knowing there wasn’t much time left.
“That was the hardest thing we had to do,” Pietrangelo says. “As soon as you walk in the door, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on. There’s the nurse. We didn’t know what to do. He was at the point where he really couldn’t even talk, but he was making sounds trying to talk to us. That was an unbelievable thing.”
A few hours later, after Pietrangelo left and the calendar flipped to Aug. 27—there’s that number again—Seth passed away. He wasn’t afraid of death, his mother said, reassuring everyone that he was headed for a better place. He had only made two last requests. “One was to keep the toy drive going for the kids,” Vogt says. “Two, that he would be buried in Alex’s jersey.” At the funeral, Pietrangelo also served as a pallbearer, but left before Seth was buried. “I couldn’t watch that,” he says, and pretty soon the unthinkable was happening.
The week after the service, Pietrangelo learned that Ellie, his fiancée's 5-year-old niece, had been diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a form of kidney cancer that affects young children. Memories of Seth were still raw, but now that the disease had reached a future in-law, Pietrangelo was hit even harder. “With family, it’s totally different,” he says. “That was the worst thing.”
Fortunately, Ellie survived her surgery. That fall, she dropped the puck at a Blues game during the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative. Her hair grew back, long and curly, as did Pietrangelo’s after he let Ellie shave his head. He pitched in with babysitting and “spent more money at the Disney store, I swear to God, than anything else.” He still has pictures of Ellie on his cell phone from during her treatment phase. Some are scary to see, he says, but the juxtaposition today makes them worth keeping.
“You’re going through it, you don’t think about it,” Pietrangelo says. “Then you look back on it, it’s like holy … how did we get through that? It brings you closer together as a family.”
As Joe Pietrangelo describes it, the origin of his son’s hockey acumen was “the typical Canadian picture.” An early knack for skating, even if initially Alex was “very intimidated, let’s put it that way.” A backyard rink at their home 40 minutes north of Toronto, lights strung up and bonfires ablaze for the kids to keep playing at night. Local leagues at first, before Alex became too good and needed to travel further. “We didn’t last too long in the small town,” Joe says.
Early on, Alex befriended another boy named Cosmo Oppedisano, who was a year older. A happy-go-lucky kid, Joe says, though today the memories are scattered. “I get glimpses once in a while,” Alex says. He remembers bringing food to Cosmo’s family after Cosmo was diagnosed with cancer. And playing Pokemon Snap with him in the hospital. And the plaque that was hung at the elementary school, near the rock beside the memorial tree. And seeing Cosmo buried at the cemetery. He does not remember how his parents told him of Cosmo’s death at age 11, only that it happened on Alex’s 11th birthday—Jan. 18, 2001.
“I carry that to this day,” he says. “As a kid, you don’t really care. It’s your birthday. You get presents. Now, it weighs on me more … You wake up, and my first thought on my birthday is always, I know what happened on this day. I try to enjoy the memories now. That’s what I’ve tried to move on to, as opposed to the negative things. He was pretty much my best friend, or one, growing up. All those glimpses I have of him, most of them are from when he got sick. But those glimpses all come back, whether we’re talking about it or it’s my birthday. It’s those flashbacks.”
This year, Pietrangelo turned 26 on a Monday, when the Blues beat the Penguins at Scottrade Center, 5–2. With two games left before the playoffs, St. Louis was tied with Dallas for first in the Central Division, and a title would mark its second straight. Pietrangelo’s 0.49 points per game is a career-low, but he’s taking more shots than ever (roughly 2.52 per game), averaging 26:18 per night (sixth league-wide) and still ranks second among blueliners in primary assists over the past five years (46 according to Corsica.hockey, behind only Ottawa's Erik Karlsson).
Advancing beyond the second round remains an unfulfilled mission for these current Blues, something the team hasn’t done since 2000-01, but Pietrangelo has developed into a reliable top-pair presence beside partner Jay Bouwmeester, comfortable in receiving more defensive responsibility. As St. Louis dealt with several significant injuries this year, most recently losing Backes and goaltender Jake Allen for at least the remainder of the regular season, Pietrangelo believes he has become a stronger leader.
“There’s a lot of ups and downs in the season, but I’m always trying to be positive,” he says. “I’m always in a good mood, I’m always trying to keep everybody happy and everything light. I think that goes a long way, keeping the boys at an even state and keeping everybody feeling the same throughout the season.”
Pietrangelo attributes this improvement to his brushes with cancer. He remains in touch with Vogt, whose toy drive has grown so big that last year they needed a 12-foot trailer hooked into a moving van to handle all the donations, and his parents see the Oppedisanos occasionally around town. Ellie attends weekly physical therapy sessions for legs weakened by chemo-induced neuropathy, but dances competitively and plans to play tee ball and golf in the summer. “Constantly on the move and full of sass everyday!” her father, Jeff Kannel, wrote in a text message.
There are always four rubber bands on Pietrangelo's wrist, even during games—a light-blue one for Ellie, a blue and yellow one for Seth, a dark-blue one for Liam the 2-year-old heart transplant patient he met at the hospital this year, and an orange one for teammate Jaden Schwartz’s sister, who died of leukemia in 2011. Pietrangelo has spoken more publicly about cancer awareness to further the cause, made more appearances and visits, even though it took time to channel the tragedy that has so deeply affected his life.
“When you’re in the moment, you try to make the best of it," he says. "The biggest impact it’s had on me is you really start to appreciate what I have. I’m healthy. My family’s all healthy. There are a lot of people at any age who aren’t so lucky. It’s given me a whole different mindset of life.
“I wake up, I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been. It might sound silly, but you can ask my fiancée. I’m in a good mood and I’m happy. I’ve seen the other side and I’ve seen what a lot of people are going through.”