VANCOUVER — It wasn't the start he hoped for, but Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro doesn't have any regrets about his NHL debut.
After all, the tough lessons he's learned this season will only help the goalie as he works toward his next objective — officially turning pro.
DiPietro was just 19 when the Canucks called him up from the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67's on an emergency basis earlier this year. He wasn't supposed to see any game action but when "lower body stiffness" kept No. 1 Jacob Markstrom sidelined against the San Jose Sharks in February, the teen got the start.
Though he stopped 17 shots, Vancouver was trounced 7-2.
"It was definitely a big eye-opener, something that I can take from," DiPietro, now 20, said at the Canucks' development camp this week.
"It's kind of crazy to say but I'm kind of happy with the way it happened. It's something I can learn from and just to make sure I'm fully ready and all areas of my game can progress in the right direction."
The world junior hockey championship in Vancouver was another tough learning experience for the young netminder. He excelled in goal for Team Canada throughout the preliminary round, but the squad lost in overtime against Finland in the quarterfinals.
"I think any time you play on a big stage or in a big game, you can definitely learn from it," DiPietro said. "Pressure's what you make of it. If you let it consume you, you can't really perform to the best of your abilities. And that's something that I really and truly do mean. And hopefully the experiences in those big games will translate well."
Canada's captain Maxime Comtois was stymied on a penalty shot in the loss and after the game he received a barrage of hateful messages online.
The vitriol spurred DiPietro to shutter his own social media accounts.
"I really don't need to read the positive things or the negative things. A lot of rumours bounce around there too so you can really have a clouded head space. At the end of the day, I'd rather be focusing on Michael DiPietro the goalie and the person," he said.
"You've got to live life. You can't live life through a phone or through technology."
The decision has helped eliminate distractions and given the burgeoning netminder more free time.
"I think it's a mature step for me to take," DiPietro said. "I'm not saying everybody has to, but it's something I decided to do and it's really paying off."
DiPietro seemed to be on the verge of ending his junior hockey career in fine fashion this spring, helping the 67's win a league-record 14 consecutive playoff games with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. He'd been traded to Ottawa from the Windsor Spitfires earlier in the season to help the 67's prepare for a post-season push.
However, a high-ankle sprain took DiPietro out in Game 2 of the OHL final, however, and he watched from the sidelines as the Guelph Storm thundered back to win the series and advance to the Memorial Cup.
Nevertheless, the playoff run was a highlight of the goalie's time in Ottawa.
"I think that's where I caught my stride and really had a lot of fun. And I think everyone else in the locker room did (too)," he said. "Unfortunately it didn't end the way we wanted it to. But I look back with a lot of fond memories not just in Ottawa but of my entire four years in junior."
The injury has since healed, DiPietro said, and he's now looking toward the future, starting with taking some pucks at the Canucks' development camp this week.
Soon, DiPietro will return home to Amherstburg, Ont., to spend some time with his family and get ready to play pro hockey this fall. He wants to "tidy up" different skills, like puck tracking and being bigger in net.
"When you're taking each step, you've got to find ways to elevate your game and make sure that you can play at this level," he said.
DiPietro knows that the leap from junior hockey is a big one, full of more challenges and learning experiences.
"There's probably going to be things that don't go my way right away," he said. "And that's something I'll have to get through, make sure my mental toughness is there and be open to change, be open to new things."
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