There's a Place You Can Go
The stuff I want to talk about isn’t easy. So I’m going to start with a hockey player cliche here. But please just stick with me, because I promise you it’s for a purpose.
This probably won’t shock you, but my path to St. Louis started on a backyard rink outside of Toronto. The water truck would come through the neighborhood on the first cold day of the year, and my dad, like all the best Canadian dads, would hook up a big firehose and flood the backyard with like 10,000 gallons of water. Then me and my brother and all our buddies from the neighborhood would spend all day running in and out of the house checking to see if the water had frozen yet.
In Canada, there’s basically two Christmas Eves. There’s real Christmas Eve, and then there’s the 24 to 48 hours it takes for the water to turn into ice on the backyard rink. The cool thing about our setup was that our house was on a farm, so there was this little wooden shack that my dad used to keep his tractor in, and in the winter we’d turn it into our locker room.
When I think about the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, I think about that rink. We just had so much fun out there. There was one problem, though, which was our net. At first, we used a dinky plastic street hockey net, but then one winter, my uncle came down and ripped a slapshot and completely exploded the crossbar. So for like two weeks, it was just chaos. We played “Kill the Guy with the Puck,” or whatever. Then my dad showed up one day with this net that he literally made with his bare hands out of some metal piping at the packaging factory that he owned. I think he welded it himself, because it wasn’t even regulation size. It was more like a funky little rectangle, and the cross-bar was waist-high. This wasn’t a problem when we were super small and we couldn’t lift the puck, but I’ll never forget this one time when I was maybe 8 years old, and my brother was playing in net. I guess I tried to go bar-down on him, and I got pretty good sauce on it. Too much sauce, actually. You know the feeling when you fire a wrister and the puck comes off your stick just perfect?
It came off perfect.
At first, it was going five-hole. Then it just kept rising up and up.
I remember the sound it made more than anything.
I got him right in the ol’ johnson. He went down like a sack of potatoes, man. It was incredible. He was laying there, kind of squirming around, like, Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.
Listen, I know it’s probably not funny to 90% of adults reading this. But when you’re 8 years old, and your big brother is walking around like a duck for a week, it’s the funniest thing in the world. We still laugh about it to this day. We spent so much time out there, just messing around, having a blast. For me, hockey has always been like an escape from life, especially when life gets complicated.
And … well, it always seems to get complicated.
One of my best friends at that age was a kid named Cosmo. When we were 9 or 10 years old, he got really sick, and to be honest, I didn’t really grasp what was going on. I knew that he had cancer, and that he was too sick to play outside, but when you’re a kid, you just think that everything is going to be OK in the end. Older people get sick and don’t get better, but kids always get better, right? That’s just how you think.
This one memory really sticks with me. Cosmo had to stay in the hospital for a while, so I would go over to visit him and we would play videogames on this dinky little hospital TV. It was Pokemon Snap on Nintendo 64. Remember that game? Maybe I’m aging myself here, but it was the one where you had a camera and you’d try to capture photos of rare Pokemon in the wild. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve played it, but it was kind of a peaceful game. You were on a beach, or in a forest, and there were Pokemon wandering around the island. You didn’t even fight, you just took pictures. We would sit there and be absorbed in the game, forgetting about everything for a few hours. We wouldn’t talk about him being sick or anything. We’d just be kids for a few hours.
Cosmo passed away on my 11th birthday. For years, I didn’t really want to celebrate my birthday. The day would always bring up a lot of memories. It was the first time that I experienced a sudden loss like that, and unfortunately not the last time. It really shaped my life and who I am as a person, and it still does. It was my first lesson in just how short life can be. My buddy was gone, for no reason at all, and I got to go on being a kid. It was hard to wrap my mind around.
Hockey, for me, became an escape. It was everything. That year, I ended up going to play in the Brick Super Novice Tournament at the West Edmonton Mall. I was on a team with Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, and Michael Del Zotto. We tore it up pretty good out there, but we ended up losing in the finals to a team from Edmonton. The winning goal was scored in overtime by a kid named Jordan Eberle.
Pretty crazy, right? The crazier part was our team name. We were the Toronto Blues. We had the St. Louis Blues jerseys and everything. The even crazier part is that if you go back and watch videos from those games, we all skate exactly the same way we do now. We were like mini versions of our NHL selves.
When I think about stuff like that, it makes me wonder about fate. Why do things happen the way they do? I’ve been a St. Louis Blue for 10 years now. Before 2008 NHL Draft, I had never even been to St. Louis before, and I probably couldn’t have told you where it was on a map. And now here I am a decade later, married to a St. Louis girl, and I’m the captain of the Blues.
It hasn’t all been easy. The last four years, especially, have been a rollercoaster. In 2014, our five-year-old niece Ellie was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumors, a rare form of kidney cancer. The following year, my youth hockey coach and good friend Tyler Cragg died of brain cancer. He was just 44.
I don’t think I have the words to express how I feel about it, even to this day. When a five-year-old girl gets cancer, and has to have surgery and chemotherapy, what can you say? What can you do but pray that things are going to be alright? Through all of it, I could turn to hockey and to my teammates to distract me for a while, and to give me strength. Thankfully, Ellie was a fighter through it all, and a few months after her surgery, she was shuffling out onto the ice to drop the puck at our game against Colorado.
When we got to the Western Conference Finals in 2016, it felt like it was going to be the culmination of years and years of hard work by so many guys. That was probably the closest team I’ve ever been a part of. There was a genuine belief in the room that we were going to win the Stanley Cup. When the Sharks beat us in 6, it was so tough to get over, because we felt like we really had the team, and we had the whole city so excited about hockey. We just couldn’t get over the top.
But in the summer, after all that disappointment, I had two of the happiest moments of my life. My wife and I had our wedding in St. Louis, and … well … it was pretty epic. I had 100 people come down from Canada for the celebration. And of course my wife had 100 of her friends and family there from St. Louis. My wife and her family have absolutely no clue about hockey, so to have our two worlds come together was awesome. Ellie was there, dancing away, feeling great.
One of the other important people that we got to share that day with was David Backes. We’re extremely close to him and his wife, and during the weekend of the wedding, he told me that he was heading to Boston in free agency. Again … bittersweet. It was the best weekend ever, but I also realized that a really important chapter was ending.
A few weeks after the wedding, I got into my car on a sunny day and I reached for the sunshade. When I flipped it down, this envelope dropped into my lap. It was from Backes, addressed to me. I guess he figured that I was going to take over the “C” for him, so he left me with some very genuine, heartfelt words to think about — what it means to be a captain and a St. Louis Blue, and about life, and … well … I’ll leave the rest between us.
When I told him I found the note, the first thing he said was, “How did it take you that long to find it?” I guess he got my car keys from the valet or something, and he thought he was James Bond, but then it took me like a week to find it because I never use my sunshade, so he was just waiting around forever for me to finally flip it down.
That note helped me through a pretty tough year. Honestly, being a captain isn’t easy, especially when you go through a coaching change like we did last season. We slowly got things together and went on a nice run, but what happened off the ice was way more important. That winter, my wife and I found out that our first child was on the way. When we found out that it was a boy, I was over the moon. I was already thinking about our future backyard rink, and about calling up the water company to send over the 10,000 gallon truck, and Hockey Night in Canada and all that stuff. That was everything to me as a kid. It wasn’t a cliche. It was my whole world. And I couldn’t wait to experience that stuff again with my own family.
Gabriel Pietrangelo was due in December, right before the holidays.
In June, we lost our son due to complications with the pregnancy.
For a long time, we didn’t talk to anyone about it, outside of our closest friends and family. How do you begin to explain what you’re going through? The single greatest thing we’ve ever been given was taken away from us, just like that. I don’t care how strong of a person you are … you can’t help but ask yourself, “If God has done all of this for me in my life, and given me so much, and if there’s a plan for everyone, then why did this happen?”
There hasn’t been a single day that I have not thought about Gabriel, or shed a tear for him. Going through that process of grief and having to try to suit up again for a new season, I’m not going to lie … it was very, very difficult to cope. But when we started sharing our story with other people who had lost children during pregnancy, we realized that they struggled with the same feelings. There’s no easy or correct way to deal with it. There’s no playbook. The pain is always there for us, and it always will be. But in telling our story, we hope to honor Gabriel, and to let people understand that they’re not alone in what they’re going through.
I’ve experienced quite a lot of loss in my life, but the one thing that I’m really grateful for is that the game of hockey gives me an escape. It gives me an opportunity to get away from my thoughts for a few hours a day and just concentrate on a game. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s still in the back of my mind. I’m always thinking about my wife now, even when I’m at the rink. But her strength in such tough times gives me strength, and I know that I’ve got a whole support system around me in St. Louis. We’re so grateful to be surrounded by so many great teammates and friends and family here, who have had our backs in an extremely difficult time.
For me, hockey has always been much more than a game. It’s a place you can go to forget about everything in the world for a while, where there’s no pain and no problems. Everything is just pure fun. I can’t wait for my own kids to experience that place one day.