VANCOUVER — Thatcher Demko has ice envy.
When global travel restrictions loosen, the National Hockey League goalie from San Diego may be tempted to bolt to Sweden before returning to the Vancouver Canucks. You see, there’s plenty of ice available in Sweden – and not just in drinks.
Sweden has been a coronavirus outlier – a country pretty much open for business during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there’s fierce debate about whether this was the correct approach medically and societally, it has been great for hockey players who at least have been able to skate and train in small groups.
Demko learned recently that Swedish teammate Jacob Markstrom is back on ice, which will give the goaltender a head start if the NHL decides to resume this season.
“I was just texting him to check in or whatever and he was like, ‘Yeah, I just got me gear shipped out and I’m skating tomorrow,'” Demko, 24, said Wednesday in a video conference call with reporters. “I was just like, oh, my God, that’s awesome. I would just be in such a better mental state if I could be getting on the ice every once in a while.
“I was just joking with him that I might have to fly out there and crash on his couch or something. I’m glad he’s getting on the ice for sure. That’s got to be nice.”
Tuesday was the two-month anniversary of the NHL shutdown. Due to social distancing and the closure of most non-essential businesses in North America – hockey rinks are not deemed essential, even in Canada — Demko said he has not gone this long without skating since he was eight or nine years old.
It’s just him and his girlfriend and their new Bernedoodle pup. Demko’s psychology degree from Boston College has been getting a workout.
“It’s definitely an odd feeling, a feeling that can be overwhelming sometimes,” he said. “You just don’t feel like you’re yourself.
“It’s been tough (because) you don’t want to fully detach from the mindset of being in the season and really just sit on the couch and relax. You want to keep your mind and your body sharp.”
Both are a challenge, but especially the body part.
Demko said his home workouts include a lot of stretching, but emphasized how careful the NHL needs to be if it returns that players have adequate time to skate and practise before attempting games.
This unprecedented shutdown is profoundly different than a regular off-season for players. Even if it weren’t, most of them are accustomed to skating rigorously for at least one or two months before training camps even begin.
“I think the two things when you think about safety are, obviously, the coronavirus and making sure that our bases are covered with guys … really being more exposed to it,” Demko said. “For the other part of it, it’s just us not being on the ice for this long and then being thrown into a training camp.
“Guys are going to have to be really careful and ease into things. You can’t just be off the ice this long and then expect to come back at it full force like we were in March. There’s definitely a lot of things from a safety aspect side of it.”
He added: “At the end of the day, I think everyone is going to have to make a sacrifice: players, owners, union. I don’t think there’s a scenario where everyone’s going to be happy with the situation.”
In Demko’s first full NHL season, the goaltender went 13-10-2 in 25 starts, posting a .905 save rate that was slightly below the league average. The most interesting part of his season was the final three weeks, after Markstrom injured his knee on Feb. 22 and required minor surgery.
With the Canucks straining to make the playoffs and playing their biggest games in years, Demko was suddenly forced into a starting role during a four-game road trip. He bombed in two of three starts, allowing seven goals on 53 shots (.868) during losses in Ottawa and Toronto.
But during the four-game homestand that followed – and after journeyman Louis Domingue was given a start — Demko recovered his equilibrium and was consistently good while stopping 130 of 142 shots (.915) as the Canucks squeezed back into a playoff position. Then the season halted.
“Having that added pressure, having those added minutes, I think it’s a big jump,” he said. “It was awesome for me to see that first-hand and kind of understand what comes with that responsibility (as NHL starter).
“Had I been thrown into that situation, maybe, let’s say in December or January when maybe the stakes aren’t as high, I think it would have been a different feeling, different environment. But I think it was good for me to come into that situation and just feel that (pressure).”
Demko said goaltending coach Ian Clark challenged him during that time.
“After some of those games on the road there, sitting down, he was never shy about it,” Demko revealed. “He was just very blunt, like: ‘You’re in a position right now where it’s a little bit of added pressure, and you’re going to either deal with that or crumple. It’s up to you.’ That’s when I kind of came home and felt like I was stepping up my game. I wanted to be there for my teammates and the City of Vancouver.”
He’d give anything to be there again.