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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 ...

Perhaps you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but just maybe this old dog has something to teach a few people.

We will meet Sheba later.

But let us begin around midnight Wednesday on the Peace Bridge leading from Buffalo, N.Y., to Fort Erie, Ont. Dan Visentin, a high school math teacher, is driving. His wife, Liz, also a teacher, is in the car, as are his parents Italo and Rita Visentin.

Italo Visentin knows something about dreams. More than a half century ago he and Rita came from Italy to nearby Niagara Falls with no idea what would happen to them in this strange new country where they didn't even speak the language. Yet it all worked out wonderfully. He became a crane operator; their children excelled in school and life; retirement gave them time to spend with grandchildren - and they had just witnessed one of them have a dream shattered.

Mark Visentin, who turned 18 only last August, was in goal for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship when the unimaginable happened. Canada was ahead 3-0 heading into the third period of the gold medal game and seemed on cruise to avenge the championship lost to the Americans last year in Saskatoon. The young Canadians had already effortlessly dispatched this year's Americans 4-1 and seemed to be doing the same to the Russians - only to have Russia score two goals in 13 seconds, tie the game in less than five minutes and storm on to a stunning 5-3 victory.

Even without the radio on, everyone in the car knew what was being said: the greatest collapse ever …the team had choked…the goalie was the goat. They hoped that Mark, travelling behind in another car with his girlfriend Harmony, didn't have his radio on. He didn't.

"How ya doin' tonight?" the border guard asked as Dan Visentin handed over the four passports.

"Depressed," Mr. Visentin answered.

The guard, flicking through the passports, paused and looked up, surprised.

"Oh shit," he said, "you're a Visentin."

"I'm the father."

The guard handed back he passports. "Don't worry," he said. "You have a great kid there - you got to be proud of him."

"We are."

"He's going to be a great goalie one day."

"We know."

Mark Visentin made it through at another border booth and drove slowly to his parents home in little Waterdown. No radio. Hardly any words. What was there to say?

He had already said what he thought he had to say. He had sobbed on the ice and wept in the dressing room - no different from any of the other shattered players - and when Andre Brin, Hockey Canada's media person at the tournament, tentatively asked if anyone was ready to meet the media, Mark Visentin volunteered immediately.

"I'll come out," he told Mr. Brin.

A lot of goaltenders would have refused. Some of the gathered media reacted with surprise when the black curtain split open and out stepped the Canadian goaltender of record, eyes clear, head held high, and prepared to talk as long as there were questions.

"I like to get stuff done and not leave it," he says.

He put no blame on the defence that at times let him down, no blame on the forwards who had their own breakdowns. He took full responsibility.

"I'm not the guy who blames his team," he says. "You really wish you could have provided a couple of saves when they were needed but I didn't. They kind of took it to us."

He had felt the tide turning, as coach Dave Cameron later put it. He watched the "spark" go into the Russians and knew that it had gone out of his own team. "We pushed the panic button a bit," he says. "We tried to get back but…."

He knew he could talk forever and the score would never change. "No one to blame but me," he says. "I try to make myself accountable for what happens."

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.

He prepared as usual - a meal of chicken parmesan, listen to some music (everything from rap to country) on the iPad Hockey Canada gave each player for Christmas, get to the rink, work on his sticks, go through the warm-up - but no one, not the coaches, not the country, was prepared for that third period.

It has been described as the greatest collapse ever in Canada's time in international hockey, but there are comparables. Alan Eagleson says what happened in Buffalo reminded him of Game 5 in the 1972 Summit Series. Team Canada was up 4-1 into the third period in Moscow, only to have the Soviets score two very quick goals - quicker even than the Russians scored their two on Mark Visentin - on Tony Esposito and then two more before the period was out to win 5-4.

Mr. Esposito, it might be worth pointing out, went on to a Hall-of-Fame career.

"People lose perspective," says Dan Visentin. "The better team won.

"Mark will be fine. He's not just my son, he's my best friend - and he's a great guy. He's got his whole future in front of him."

It took a long time for Mark Visentin to drive home that night. He thinks he probably got in around 3:30. "It was weird," he says of the drive back. "There was just so much to take in."

He was grateful for his goaltending coach with the IceDogs, Ben Vanderklok, who has worked hard on "focus" and "attitude" and "confidence" the past two years.

"It was a tough pill to swallow," he says. "But I think I'm a better person for it. This has been a big learning curve." If he gets a chance next year, when he'll only be 19, he'll be ready. He just hopes to get the chance.

There was no one up when he came through the front door, but then the sound of an old dog's nails moving along the floor.

Sheba came hurrying toward him, wiggling and tail wagging.

"She was just happy to see me," he says.

And he her, after the day he had just put in.

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