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Team Russia forward Artemi Panarin (27) scores the game winning goal on Team Canada goaltender Mark Visentin (30) as defenceman Simon Despres (3) defends during third period Gold medal game at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, N.Y. on Wednesday January 5, 2011. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Team Russia forward Artemi Panarin (27) scores the game winning goal on Team Canada goaltender Mark Visentin (30) as defenceman Simon Despres (3) defends during third period Gold medal game at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, N.Y. on Wednesday January 5, 2011. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

ROY MACGREGOR

A Canadian goaltender's lesson in life Add to ...

It is, in fact, the accountability and responsibility of that critical position in hockey that first appealed to him. In his first year of novice they let each youngster try goaltending, and when some of the children balked, he volunteered. In his second year he went fulltime in the nets.

"I fell in love with it," he says.

"Only fat kids who can't skate play goal," his father would kid him. But Mark stuck with it even though he had shown promise as an out player.

"The goaltender can be a game-changer," he says, "and that is a great, great feeling. But if you're going to do that, you have to accept the ups and downs that come with it."

His great hero was Curtis Joseph, then the goaltender for the nearby Toronto Maple Leafs. He and his friends would play on the backyard rink and he would imagine he was "CuJo" kicking out the pucks - at least when Sheba, the family's golden retriever puppy wasn't running off with them.

An only child, he had formed a remarkable bond with the dog. They grew up together and today are teenagers together, Sheba 14 and Mark 18, though she long ago lost interest in chasing pucks.

Dan Visentin didn't push his son. He himself had never played the game and he left the coaching to others. One minor hockey coach, Ken Jaysman, took Mark as goaltender on his AA Novice team and the team went through the season undefeated - Mr. Jaysman's attitude and love of the game making a huge impression on the youngster.

Soon he was considered a goaltender to watch. At 16, he made the leap to major junior, drafted by the Niagara IceDogs, a team that plays out of St. Catharines, Ont. At 17, six weeks short of his 18th birthday, and much to his own surprise, he became a first round draft pick (chosen 27th overall) of the Phoenix Coyotes.

"I felt like I had a heart attack," he said of the surprise first-round choice, a selection that Sports Illustrated tagged the biggest surprise of the opening round of the draft. To Mark Visentin, however, it was "the best day of my life." He had no idea that, before the year was out, he would also go through the worst day of such a young life.

He hopes, like every player named to the Team Canada junior team, to have a professional career, but he is an excellent student with an average consistently above 80 per cent and intends to take courses at Brock University for as long as he's a junior. "You have to have a back-up plan," he says.

But the main plan is obviously to go as far as he can in hockey. Last summer he was invited to the junior camp, but when he got there they lumped him in with the under-18s rather than the under-20s and he was sure he would never be able to impress the ones he needed to. But then they made him one of four goaltenders invited to the December camp in Toronto. His roommate was Olivier Roy, who got his call from team management early that final morning of camp and told Mark, who figured this meant he himself hadn't made it.

"Who's your partner going to be?" the disappointed youngster asked.

"You!"

It seemed that partnership would be in the back-up role, with the year-older Mr. Roy pegged to get the most work, but after Canada lost 6-5 in a shootout to Sweden, the switch was made to Mark Visentin. He allowed a weak goal in the quarter-final against Switzerland, but it was the only goal allowed, and he was as good as the rest of his team against U.S.A., when Canada won 4-1 to reach the final. There was no doubt, by this point, that the 18-year-old goaltender would play the gold medal game in a championship that was created for, and has traditionally been decided by, 19-year-olds.

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