Northeast Times

Brotherly love

Steph­en Pet­tit was born with a con­di­tion called Erb's palsy, which causes para­lys­is of the arm. It hasn't slowed him from be­com­ing an ice hockey standout for Arch­bish­op Ry­an.

  • Raider nation: John Pettit (left) is a 2011 graduate of Archbishop Ryan and an alum of the Raider hockey program. His younger brother, Stephen, has followed in his hockey footsteps despite a condition called Erb’s palsy, which causes paralysis of the arm. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • A hockey family: The Pettit family (L to R): Brother, John; dad, John; mom, Sherry; and Stephen.

  • A hockey family: Stephen Pettit has been playing hockey since he was two. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • A hockey family: Stephen Pettit has been playing hockey since he was two. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

John Pet­tit has two tat­toos that hon­or his young­er broth­er, Steph­en. Steph­en, a 15-year-old ice hockey play­er at Arch­bish­op Ry­an, is still too young to don any ink of his own, but should he de­cide to go down that road, his per­son­al motto would seem more than fit­ting.

Can’t means won’t.

Since birth, Steph­en Pet­tit has dealt with an af­flic­tion known as Erb’s palsy, which causes par­tial or com­plete para­lys­is of the arm due to an ab­nor­mal or dif­fi­cult child­birth.

He was born two weeks be­fore his moth­er, Sherry’s, due date. At one point, while she was wait­ing to de­liv­er Steph­en, his heart rate dropped to zero. The doc­tors had to act quickly.

“They just could not get him out,” Sherry re­called as she sat on a base­ment couch of the fam­ily’s Mill­brook home, loc­ated between Cal­vary Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation and the Frank­lin Mills Mall. 

Doc­tors were able to ex­tract Steph­en, but not be­fore the nerve dam­age to his left arm was done. Fif­teen years later, it hangs limply but not in­cred­ibly no­tice­ably. It’s not un­til he takes off his shirt that it’s clear something is amiss, with his col­lar bone pro­trud­ing awk­wardly through the shoulder blade. Treat­ment op­tions in­clude let­ting it heal on its own (when ap­plic­able), sur­gery or ex­tens­ive re­hab­il­it­a­tion. Steph­en’s doc­tors op­tioned for the lat­ter, be­gin­ning stretch­ing ex­er­cises right away. Now, after years of phys­ic­al ther­apy, he is able to push his arm up to a 90-de­gree angle.

The Pet­tit’s are a self-defined hockey fam­ily. Steph­en has played since he was 2 years old, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of older broth­er John, now 20 and a stu­dent at Temple Uni­versity. John played hockey grow­ing up for vari­ous club teams, and later for the Raid­er ice hockey pro­gram. Their fath­er, also named John, didn’t start play­ing in men’s hockey leagues un­til his late teens, but he’s been in­volved with coach­ing for more than two dec­ades, in­clud­ing many of his sons’ teams. At their home, pho­tos of the Pet­tit broth­ers play­ing hockey are in­ter­spersed with Fly­ers mem­or­ab­il­ia (the fam­ily has sea­son tick­ets) on the base­ment’s walls. 

Des­pite his phys­ic­al af­flic­tion, Steph­en hasn’t slowed down, wheth­er it’s on the ice for Ry­an or play­ing roller hockey for one of his club teams (namely the Grundy Sen­at­ors and DVHL Blazers). He also en­joys play­ing base­ball, bas­ket­ball and run­ning track, though hockey is his first and most pro­nounced love.

“It both­ers me at times,” Steph­en said of his arm, re­mov­ing his T-shirt to show his left arm. “I don’t really feel much at all in the el­bow, but there are cer­tain spots where it hurts if you touch it. There’s not much range of mo­tion or strength, but I al­ways try hard no mat­ter what. Plus, you can’t really no­tice it un­der all my gear.”

“His arm doesn’t really move the same as yours or mine,” the eld­er John Pet­tit said. “It loses its range, and he can’t really straight­en his shoulder blade. He kind of moves the arm in dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions. Luck­ily, the arm grew, so it hangs a bit in­stead of be­ing all shriveled up. He jumped right in­to hockey, at the highest levels against usu­ally older kids.”

Part of that was hav­ing both a fath­er and older broth­er to teach Steph­en the ne­ces­sary skills to be a fun­da­ment­ally pol­ished hockey play­er. There are a few bas­ket­ball hoops loc­ated in the Pet­tits’ cul-de-sac, but their home is eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able due to the hockey nets sit­ting in the drive­way.

The broth­ers grew up com­pet­ing with and against each oth­er.Steph­en’s older broth­er sports side-by-side tat­toos on his left arm and the left side of his back, sym­bol­iz­ing Steph­en’s Erb’s palsy. Both fea­ture hearts, one of which reads “Heart means everything,” the oth­er “Nev­er give up.”

“We’re best friends, we do everything to­geth­er,” John said of his young­er broth­er. “Now that he’s older, he hangs out with my friends and me a lot more. Even though I’m his big broth­er, I look up to him.”

Both broth­ers are de­fend­ers by trade, al­though Steph­en is more of an of­fens­ive threat in roller hockey, which he says moves quick­er with rules (no off­sides) less con­strict­ing on play­ers than ice hockey. John men­tioned his love for hit­ting as his reas­on for get­ting so in­volved in the sport.

Steph­en? He just wants to help make his team­mates look bet­ter.

“I play to win and for my team­mates, not to score goals,” he said. “The name on the front of your jer­sey is so much more im­port­ant than the one on the back. I want to al­ways have my team­mates’ backs so they don’t get pushed around or up­set, es­pe­cially my goalie. I want to be a fun­da­ment­ally sound, team play­er who al­ways looks to pass the puck.”

Des­pite his con­di­tion, Steph­en has few lim­it­a­tions in play­ing such a phys­ic­al sport. His hockey skills have taken him all over, from Phil­adelphia to Lake Pla­cid to Canada for the Can-Am Games, where he com­peted against teams from Canada, Sweden, Fin­land and Ukraine, among oth­ers.

He’s also much more than just a hockey play­er. He’s an hon­or stu­dent at Ry­an, and this com­ing year will par­ti­cip­ate in the Double-Up math pro­gram, tak­ing both Geo­metry and Al­gebra 2 in the same year. Not only that, but Steph­en is the vice pres­id­ent of his class. He’s wanted to at­tend Bo­ston Col­lege since the eighth grade, partly be­cause of the school’s highly re­garded ice hockey and club roller hockey pro­grams and partly be­cause of its aca­dem­ic repu­ta­tion.

“I want to help kids get bet­ter at school, and help en­cour­age them to get more in­volved,” he said when asked why he wanted to be a class of­ficer. “Some­times kids don’t try and think school is stu­pid and won’t get them any­where when ac­tu­ally it’s the most im­port­ant thing in life. You only have four years, and you can’t get them back. It pays to be in­volved.”

As a fresh­man, Steph­en be­came a huge cog in­to the re­con­struc­tion of the Ry­an hockey pro­gram, which is re­build­ing after soar­ing costs to play made many of the play­ers drop out. John Pet­tit Sr., who has as­sisted the pro­gram for more than a dec­ade along with head coach John Hunter, said the school had eight or nine varsity-level teams when his old­est son was there. Now, it’s down to one, plus a middle school feed­er team.

Thanks in large part to Steph­en’s ef­forts and pas­sion for the game that means so much to his fam­ily, the Raid­er pro­gram is back on the up­swing. This past sea­son, des­pite hav­ing roughly a half dozen fresh­men on the roster, Ry­an made it all the way to the cham­pi­on­ship game, where they fell to Ro­man Cath­ol­ic.

“He can do everything that you can do,” his fath­er said. “That’s al­ways been his mind­set. We ad­mire him, ab­so­lutely, and I love the fact that oth­er people do, too. We pushed him, now we’re see­ing the end res­ult and we’re so proud. He’s put it be­hind him to the point where it’s no longer an is­sue.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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