(HockeySTL)-- In hockey, it is a rare that a player goes through his career without engaging in a fight. It’s just something that comes with the territory, a rite of passage. Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has indulged in one such fight thus far in his career, but it doesn’t come close to comparing to the battle his five-year-old niece, Ellie, is currently involved in.
Ellie is not technically related to Pietrangelo, being the daughter of his girlfriend Jayne’s sister, but the two have grown extremely close since Pietrangelo has been with Jayne.
“She’s always in good spirits when I am there,” Pietrangelo said of Ellie. “She’s a bundle of joy. To see the way she’s acting, it’s something to learn from and appreciate every day we have.”
The relationship between Pietrangelo and Ellie is strong, which is why the defenseman stepped up this week to support Ellie’s battle with cancer.
Ellie was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor this past August. Wilms' tumor is a rare form of cancer that is primarily found in young children and affects the kidney. Two months ago Ellie had surgery to remove the kidney affected by the cancer. While she is doing well with her recovery, part of the long process is the chemotherapy, which has caused Ellie to lose some of her hair.
The family knew chemotherapy would be needed following the surgery, but that didn't make it any easier. So, as a show of support, both Pietrangelo and his girlfriend had their hair cut. Pietrangelo let Ellie completely shave his head.
“Everyone around me is laughing,” Pietrangelo said. “I didn’t know what it looked like at first. It was pretty funny. I had a rat tail and everything going on. They had to clean it up a bit. We kept the guard on when she had the razor in-hand. I was worried about the eyebrows. It was getting close.”
Pietrangelo posted pictures of his new look on Twitter Monday to promote his niece’s battle. He also sent some looks of his new ‘do to his mother.
“I think my mother was terrified when I sent her the picture,” Pietrangelo said.
Blues captain David Backes understands the reaction.
“He’s not a very good-looking bald guy,” Backes joked.
But while Backes and a few other teammates were able to poke fun at the new look, they also praised Pietrangelo for the display of support.
“I think it shows what type of person he is,” said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Recently, Backes and his wife, Kelly, had the opportunity to meet Ellie, inviting her and Pietrangelo over to their house to meet some of the smaller members of the Backes family.
“She was over feeding some foster kittens,” Backes said. “She’s just a joyful spirit that is always smiling. For a five-year-old who has done nothing wrong, to have that battle on her hands you feel for her and try to make it as comfortable as it can be. Keep her in your thoughts and prayers.”
Backes and his wife are active in the St. Louis community, especially when it comes to animal rights and rescue. It’s a cause they believe in, so they can relate to Pietrangelo, who is passionate about the Stand Up To Cancer movement.
“That’s part of our calling as public figures, to lend a hand whether it is kids with cancer, people in need, family member s in need, we’ve got an awesome platform,” Backes said. “There’s lots of instances where guys help out and we love to do it.”
Aside from sporting a new look, Pietrangelo has been actively spreading awareness about Ellie and the Stand Up To Cancer program. The defenseman has appeared at awareness and fundraising events in support of the program and has recently focused on raising funds to help cover the cost of Ellie’s procedure. As of Wednesday afternoon, $19,000 had been donated to Ellie’s family via the online donation page they configured.
Pietrangelo’s gesture has had the desired effect, with multiple out-of-town media outlets picking up and broadcasting the story. But Pietrangelo wants to make sure people focus on Ellie, not him.
“It’s not about me,” he said.
Still, team members and coaching staff can’t help but look at Pietrangelo and say ‘well done’.
“I’m really impressed. I told him the story of [country artist] Kellie Pickler in Nashville,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “She did the same thing for her best friend [Summer Miller] in 2012. It shows the obvious bond and the care. Kellie kept her head shaved until her friend was cancer-free. She got a lot of support and I’m hoping the same thing happens for Alex.”
As a team, the Blues, along with the National Hockey League, heavily support the fight against cancer. The club will be hosting its annual Hockey Fights Cancer night on Nov. 1 to raise money for research and awareness.
“There is a responsibility on our part to make a stand and make simple gestures to provide some inspiration and hope,” said Shattenkirk. Most hockey players are happy to do it.”