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Patrick Johnston: Markstrom works to refocus on stopping pucks after 'messed up' months

Vancouver Canucks' netminder Jacob Markstrom said he's focused on finding his form and leading his NHL team to the playoffs after enduring some "messy months" due to the death of his father.
Vancouver Canucks' netminder Jacob Markstrom said he's focused on finding his form and leading his NHL team to the playoffs after enduring some "messy months" due to the death of his father.

Professional athletes tend to be immensely hard on themselves. Even when outsiders say they’re playing well, they’ll often insist they can do much better, that they missed a defensive assignment here, a scoring chance there, they left a loose rebound, they got lucky over there.

In professional sports, there are few jobs harder than being a hockey goalie, but even they will talk about the shots they missed more than the great saves they made.

That last line of defence thing is a heavy burden.

In Jacob Markstrom’s case, there’s the pressure from an opponent, the pressure he puts on himself, and over the past six months, the weight of knowing his father, Anders, was in a fight for his life.

“This whole month, October too, has been messed up, for obvious reasons,” the Vancouver Canucks’ goalie said after Wednesday’s practice.

The veteran netminder left the NHL team last week to be with his family in Sweden as they celebrated his dad’s life. Markstrom’s father lost his battle with cancer and died just over a month ago.

He didn’t go into detail, but the netminder said it was good to be with his family.

He’s also had the support of teammates and coaches all the while, which has, of course, meant everything to him.

“I can’t even start to take a guess at what he’s gone through,” Canucks’ head coach Travis Green said Wednesday. “I think anyone in the room today wouldn’t be able to understand what he’s gone through unless you’ve gone through it yourself.”

The bench boss said he was in awe of how the veteran goalie performed while he was carrying such an emotional and mentally draining load.

“I think he’s handled it unbelievably.”

For Markstrom the off-ice challenge is difficult, but it’s the on-ice challenge he prefers to focus on and discuss.

He hadn’t played in more than a week when he faced the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. And even though his team lost 4-1, it was still fun to be back in net.

“It’s tough to go a week off,” Markstrom said. “I feel like I play my best when I practise every day and I play a lot of hockey.”

Hockey-wise, Markstrom is looking forward.

“I’m hoping to get ahead, to get up to the level where I want to play,” he said.

The battle to keep his spot in the crease motivates him. He was a backup for many seasons and while there may seem to be a hierarchy between him and rookie goalie Thatcher Demko, he said it’s nothing like that. It’s just an endless drive for both to be the best they can be.

“He’s really willing to learn and he puts in the time and the work … I appreciate it. And, you know, we push each other every day. We both want to be in net and we both want to play and we’re both very competitive guys,” he said of his partnership with Demko, who moved up to the Canucks from the AHL’s Utica Comets last January.

“Obviously I’ve been in the league and have played a lot more games so anything I can do to help him prepare and give him tips with equipment or playing or stuff like that, I’m happy to do that. And we both help each other.”

Now 29, Markstrom said he didn’t always understand how much he needed to take care of all the small details. It’s about what you do in all the hours away from practices and games, how you get quality rest and sleep. It all adds up.

When he was younger, he thought getting better was all about practise, practise, practise.

“But experience is huge, too. You see the game a different way, that you don’t have to make the game so hard, trust yourself.

“When you trust yourself, you need a good system, you need a good play. And when you have that you can trust yourself that you’re going to stop every puck. And make sure you’re having fun.”

He first switched to goaltending full-time when he was 13. Partly it was because his older brother wanted somebody to shoot the puck at. And he didn’t like sitting on the bench as a player — he always wanted to be on the ice.

That endless energy had him playing all kinds of other sports in the summer, including soccer and golf.

“My parents didn’t push me at all. They were super supportive and never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to do.

“Of course it’s different now, with social media and the easy access you can get to workout accounts and goalie schools right on Instagram. What I had growing up was just what you saw on TV. You had to come up with it yourself.”

Sometimes parents will ask him about what their kids should be doing and he has a simple message: keep having fun.

“When I was six, seven, I practised, but to have fun. I went only to have fun. That was my only reason to go practice.”

That energy still drives him and it’s clear he has no problem harnessing it toward his efforts to make himself a better goalie.

“I’m never satisfied when it comes to playing or performing. I always feel like I can get so much better and that’s what pushes me every day.”

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LISTEN: In this week’s White Towel podcast, beat writer Ben Kuzma and columnist Ed Willes join Paul Chapman to discuss the Canucks “microcore” and the challenges they face going into the rest of the season. The group also looks at the job Jim Benning has done, the increased social media presence of owner Francesco Aquilini and whether that places any extra burden on Benning, as well as the dilemma of what to do with the goaltending situation looking ahead to the off-season. The podcast finishes off with a look back at the 1982 Canucks team that caught fire and rode it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

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