It’s 6:30 p.m. in San Jose, Calif., Mark Visentin is alone and sick in his hotel room while his Rockford IceHogs teammates are just down the road at the SAP Center preparing for their first game of the 2015-16 season. This lonely room becomes very familiar to Visentin throughout the weekend trip, as he's too ill to be around anybody else until the team returns to Rockford. Although missing the first weekend of games is disappointing, this isn't the first setback the goalie has faced in his young career.
Flashback to a year, one month, and a few days prior at the Arizona Coyotes training camp. It’s day three, and the rookies are all doing whatever they can to get noticed by the coaches. Visentin has been here before. Notching an NHL game to his stat sheet the season prior, he's confident that he can make another positive impression on Goaltending Coach Sean Burke and Head Coach Dave Tippett. Yet almost as fast as his heart was beating during a split-team scrimmage, his dreams of suiting up for an NHL game that season ended as a teammate awkwardly fell on his ankle. Getting helped off the ice, thus began Mark Visentin's road to recovery.
The Coyotes doctors and trainers attempted to rehabilitate his injured ankle for a week before he was sent down to the team's then-American Hockey League affiliate, the Portland Pirates. Upon reporting to Maine, he endured another eight weeks of physical therapy before he felt it was best to receive a second opinion. After multiple appointments and an inconclusive MRI in November, although they had theories, the doctors knew the only way they could truly find out what was going inside Visentin's injured ankle was by getting inside.
On the day after Christmas, Canada's Boxing Day, Visentin underwent surgery. Once awake, the nurses refused to tell him what happened, causing him to demand to talk to the surgeon. To his dismay, the news was far from what he wanted to hear; it was the worst case scenario. The issues the doctor thought were going on were present.
After spending two days at an Ontario hospital, Visentin was released and returned back to Portland to be with his team. But the first two months were far from easy, as he was unable to walk.
"My roommate [Brendan Shinnimin] helped me a lot, making meals and had to help me get in and out of the shower,” said Visentin. “Little things like that. [Being a] professional athlete, working 6-7 days a week, to laying on a couch not being able to get up on my own."
Once the two-month mark hit in late February, the real work began. Visentin slowly started getting better and stronger in the gym, and gradually started feeling comfortable skating in a track suit again.
Down to earth and inquisitive, Visentin didn’t let the extra down time slip away from him. He used the time he was given to study the game from angles he had never seen before, both at the rink, and even in the classroom. To keep himself occupied during the season, he took an online college course, “Leadership through Emotional Intelligence”.
Visentin also utilized other off-ice resources to get him back in the right frame of mind, “I thought I could apply it to hockey and life right away,” commented Visentin.
“It helped me put things in perspective. [It was] pretty challenging, mentally, to stay the course; luckily for me I had a great physiotherapist back home and a yoga instructor that really put me through the course and helped me through it all. The biggest thing, at least for me, is if you need help to get it. I don’t think it’s bad to talk to a doctor or psychologist; you’re only trying to make yourself better and help yourself through a tough time.”
Four months later, Visentin was back home in Waterdown, Ont. after the Pirates fell in a 3-2 playoff series to the eventual Calder Cup Champion Manchester Monarchs. After a long, mentally and physically demanding rehabilitation course, he was finally able to put his gear on for the first time since the injury in Phoenix.
It took until late June for Visentin to feel comfortable enough to go full-out, and consequently, get cleared by his doctor. Just as he got back to his normal off-season routine, the Coyotes decided to part ways, making him a free agent.
A few days later, he received the call he was waiting for. The Chicago Blackhawks and Mark Bernard, the General Manager of Minor League Affiliations, reached out to Visentin with an offer.
"It was interesting going through free agency. I wasn't sure where I was going to end up. It's hard to say no, this is a great organization, one I really wanted to be a part of,” said Visentin. “Now that I’m here, I really realize how great it is here in Chicago and in Rockford; how many resources the players are given to succeed. Really happy to sign here in Rockford in the summer. It gave me some incentive to be ready once I got here. Here I am now, in Rockford, and I couldn’t be happier."
Upon arriving to Blackhawks training camp in September, Visentin’s nerves rattled him a bit as it would be his first encounter with an NHL-caliber practice in almost exactly a year. Confident in his physical abilities, he began to feel better as each day of camp passed, catching up to the speed with ease.
Visentin was eventually sent to Rockford to join the IceHogs camp. Fast-forward to Oct. 18th, the day he had so longed to see was finally here. The healthy, strong and ready goaltender hit the ice for his first game in 18 months and five days, as he so vividly remembers. He recounts the day as being very emotional, between being in his first game in such a long time and losing to the Texas Stars 7-2.
"I sat back and said, 'Okay, I guess they're going to throw adversity at me right away and see how I react.' [In] hockey, you can't take nights off. No one can. You just can't afford to. It shows and it's not going to help you out," said Visentin.
Despite the loss, Visentin didn't let one rough game for himself and the team get the best of him.
"My mission here is to just get better every single day and I approach practices and games with the mentality that I'm here to work hard,” said Visentin. “If I'm gonna do something, I'm going to do it all out and I want to do it right. If everything was easy, it wouldn't be worth it, right? Here I am, working hard, looking for the next opportunity."
Unbeknownst to him, the next opportunity was right around the corner. On Nov. 1st in Des Moines, Visentin shutout the Iowa Wild 2-0, blocking 38 shots. It marked his first win since March 2, 2014 against the Hartford Wolf Pack, and his first shutout since Feb. 2, 2013 versus the Albany Devils.
Reflecting on his journey, Visentin believes the hardest part was not playing in a game all season.
“I had to watch my team play the whole year. It was very difficult not being a part of the success they had. Not being around the team as much kind of felt on my own a bit. It was tough, mentally, to be a part of that.”
Now that he is healthy, Visentin can focus once again on his future NHL aspirations and put his injury behind him.