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Battling for No. 1

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Everything was going to plan. Canada held a commanding 3-0 advantage over Russia with a mere 20 minutes to play at HSBC Arena on Jan. 5, 2011.

In a third period that can only be described as a nightmare, Russia skated away with a 5-3 victory, bragging rights and the hardware everyone was chasing. It was the biggest comeback in World Junior Championship history and, for Canada, the biggest heartbreak.

Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.
"That was a big-time low," starting netminder Mark Visentin recalled. "Maybe the biggest one ever. It was the toughest time in my life."

High-end sporting events usually end like this. One team indulges with an incredible sense of pride, while the other drowns in an endless barrage of troubling memories.

Visentin would rather move on.

"Whether you win or lose, you have to relax," he said. "I drove home that night, got home at about 4:00am and my coaches gave me a two-day break, which was nice.

"We had a game that Sunday against Kingston and we were down 2-0 early. I've never been chirped so much. We came back and killed them 6-2 and I don't think I heard a single word in the third period. Little things like that give you a spark to keep going."

Fellow National Junior Development Camp participant and Oilers prospect Tyler Bunz isn't surprised with Visentin's rebound. While there's most certainly a battle for the starting position in Canada's crowded crease, there's a unique bond between the masked men.

"You don't want to see something like that happen to another goalie," he said. "We're good buddies and we talked quite a bit throughout the tournament to see how things were going. It hurts and I think it hurt every Canadian when that comeback happened.

"But that's part of the game. Things like that happen. Mark is more mature than anyone I've ever met. He threw it into the back of his mind and came back strong in the OHL. He had a great year and great post-season. Now he's back here and trying to lead Canada to a gold medal again. You've got to respect him for that. He never gives up."

Both Visentin and Bunz have come from similar backgrounds. Neither played for Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka U18 tournament, but have instead established an international reputation based on CHL success.

Bunz, 19, posted a 35-13-8 record with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers, along with a .919 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average. Visentin returned to the OHL's Niagara IceDogs where he amassed similar numbers. In 46 games, he collected a 30-9-6 record, highlighting his .917 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average.

"I've got so much respect for him," Visentin said of Bunz. "Both of us have played really hard in our careers and we've gotten here for a reason. We talk all the time and support each other. It's great having a friend like that."

Separated by 2,500 kilometers across Canada, success and an incoming challenge has brought them together. Both have eyed up Canada's No. 1 role, fully aware that this early camp will have an impact on future decisions. For the time being, anyway, they're against one-another as Team White and Team Red combatants.

"I think every goalie here is battling for that No. 1 position," Bunz explained. "[Visentin has] been there before and he's obviously been through the strings and ropes that come with it. You've got to take it one stride at a time and you've got to enjoy everything that happens."

Although it's become Visentin's role to lose, Team Canada's 2012 entry has been branded as a new beginning.

"It's a whole new year and a whole new team," he remarked. "We don't really dread on the past. Everybody here has to earn his position and I'm no different. No spots are guaranteed and the coaches made sure that was straight-up.

"It's a lot of fun. Come ice-time, you've got bear down and do your best."

Although Visentin has the veteran advantage, he agrees that there's no room to slow. Team Canada's second consecutive silver medal was a disappointment, and the soon-to-be 19-year-old is driven to improve on that.

"We use it to our advantage to motivate ourselves to get better throughout the summer."

As far as Bunz is concerned, pressure has become second-hand. The hometown boy is looking forward to the challenge of earning a spot and playing for his country on home ice at Rexall Place; 16,839 screaming fans decked out in the nation's red and white is motivation enough.

"The thought of wearing a Canadian sweater and competing for a gold medal is something special," he said. "I've prepared all summer for this. It's something that I want to accomplish. It's going to be a long road from here to December, but I'm really looking forward to it.

"It would mean the world to me to make the team."

Author: Ryan Dittrick |

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