They came at him in waves, firing questions, one after another. What was it like? How did it feel? When did you finally get over it?
This was Mark Visentin, on a typical day during the world junior hockey tryout camp last week. Everyone wanted to focus on the final 20 minutes of hockey in last year’s tournament which, in the words of TSN play-by-play man Gord Miller, constituted the worst collapse in world junior history. Ahead 3-0 going into the third period and poised to win gold, Canada instead gave up five goals to Russia and suddenly, there they were, on the blue line, trying to hold back tears, as the Russians celebrated an unexpected victory.
Many things led to the breakdowns that permitted Russia back into the game, but in the long history of hockey, ultimately a single player holds the responsibility - the goaltender.
So day-after-day, Visentin patiently and politely answered questions about last year and on one of those days, Ron Tugnutt was standing nearby, holding court himself. Tugnutt is a former NHL goaltender, currently an assistant coach with the Peterborough Petes, and the goaltending coach for the 2012 world junior team, which is set to begin play Boxing Day with a game against Finland. Tugnutt knows Visentin from the Ontario Hockey League, knows him as a goaltender and knows him as a person.
According to Tugnutt if anyone has the right stuff to rebound from last year’s disappointing result, it is Visentin - who, along with the Plymouth Whalers’ Scott Wedgewood, will share goaltending duties for Canada this year. Wedgewood pushed Visentin for the starting job all the way through camp; and was particularly good in the final exhibition against Sweden Friday, coming on in relief after Visentin gave up four goals in the first 30 minutes of play. Wedgewood didn’t surrender a single goal in his time between the pipes, the final tally going into the empty net.
Regardless of who plays in Monday’s opener, it is all but certain that both goaltenders will get a long look during the four-game preliminary round, meaning whatever decision coach Don Hay makes about his starter for Game 1, doesn’t mean it’s cast in stone for the rest of the tournament.
Visentin knows something about how that goes - last year, he was the nominal back-up, but ultimately took over the starter’s job, and was there, playing in the gold-medal game.
What Tugnutt particularly likes about Visentin is his unflinching honesty.
“His skill level is one thing, but his personality is another,” said Tugnutt. “Anyone who experienced what he did last year and is able to stand up straight and see all the media and stick his chest out and be proud of himself, that to me was a big statement - that he’s a pretty mature kid and he can handle this.”
Maturity and experience mean different things at this level. Maturity at 19 is different than maturity at 25, and for some goaltenders, real maturity doesn’t come until they are much further along the development path. But in Visentin’s case, there is a calmness that sets him apart from others, and a sparkle of good humor that surfaces whenever the questions veer away from last year’s finish.
“It’s not like I went for any length of time without being reminded about it,” said Visentin, who is surely sick to death about rehashing the past by now. “For me, it’s something I learned to cope with and am trying to use to my advantage.
“When I come out here and play every day, I don’t use one game to motivate me. I love the game, that’s why I play. I have fun. This is a new chapter this year. It’s not about last year. From my standpoint, it’s about winning the gold this year.
“Losing the gold medal game is one thing I used in the off-season to push myself one step harder if I felt fatigue - and just make sure I’m the hardest-working guy out there. There are thousands of other kids working as hard as I am to get to where I want to be, so I know that there’s stiff competition.”
Canadian centre Freddie Hamilton is Visentin’s closest friend on his junior team, the Niagara Ice Dogs. They came up together, the two youngest players on the team when they broke in. Hamilton says that the one thing people do not readily realize about Visentin is the extent of his work ethic.
“I personally don’t believe he deserved all that (negative) attention, but he has really learned from it,” said Hamilton. “Just seeing him come back from that, it probably has made him stronger.
“Some people may have let that defeat them. He’s learned to grow from it.”
The world juniors open at a venue, Rexall Place in Edmonton, where goaltender Grant Fuhr produced a Hall Of Fame career on behalf of the NHL’s Oilers many years ago. Fuhr had the perfect mentality for a goaltender, understanding that you can’t worry about the last one, you can only worry about the next one. Visentin gets that too.
“As a goalie, you know you’re going to get scored on,” said Visentin. “You’re not going to get a thousand shutouts over the years. When I’m out there and I get scored on, I know you just have to move on. You can’t look far behind and you can’t look too far ahead. You just take it shot by shot.
“One of the big things I use out there to keep my head in it is, I’m verbal with my teammates. I like to communicate a lot. That keeps me in the zone. That keeps me focused. We have a good core group of defencemen, who talk to you back. It’s a lot of fun out there.”
In the win-at-all costs mentality of tournament play, the focus is all on how it ended last year - which largely overshadowed a wonderful Canadian performance up to that point.
Visentin, who started as the back-up but emerged as the starter in the medal round last year, called the experience “a blast .... We lost to the Swedes in the shootout in that one particular game, but we went out there and the team really bought into the system and we had a ton of fun out there. I’ll tell you, when you’re winning in the tournament, it’s really, really fun - and I thought the coaches did a good job of keeping us on the same page and keeping us on an even keel.
“I’m looking forward to the same thing this year.”