VANCOUVER – The last time Thatcher Demko was not his team’s starting goalie, he was a 15-year-old rookie in the United States Hockey League playing for the Omaha Lancers, who aren’t actually in Nebraska’s largest city but play in the suburb of Ralston.
Demko moved from San Diego to play in Ralston, Neb., eight years ago. It worked out alright because Demko went on to become a starter in the U.S. National Team Development Program, then a star at Boston College, a second-round 2014 draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks and the No. 1 goalie for the American League’s Utica Comets.
But now, the 23-year-old is in the National Hockey League with the Canucks, where until Monday his job was to back up starter Jacob Markstrom.
Nearly three weeks since he last played a game (in the pre-season) Demko suddenly became the starter when the Canucks announced on Thanksgiving Monday that Markstrom was granted a leave for family reasons.
With a .926 save percentage through four games, Markstrom is off to a terrific start this season. But he is home in Sweden this week and not expected to rejoin the Canucks until their upcoming road trip reaches New York for games Saturday and Sunday against the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.
So Demko gets to start Tuesday at home against the Detroit Red Wings and Thursday on the road against the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Presumably, the prospect will also play the first half of the Canucks’ back-to-back games in New York.
Having bounced back from an 0-2 start to even their record, this is a big week for the Canucks to build momentum and attack their four-game road trip from a position of strength in the standings. But it’s an even bigger week for Demko, who has long been considered Vancouver’s “goalie of the future,” but must prove he can win NHL games as a backup.
“If you’re kind of going through practices and going through the schedule that you’re just a role player, then all of a sudden something happens, it’s hard to flip that switch,” Demko told reporters after Monday’s practice at Rogers Arena.
“As I’m kind of going through this I’ve seen how much it can help just to stay sharp mentally through the practices and just have that game-like mindset every day.
“Especially in these situations, it’s easy to make the game a lot bigger than it is. I feel, personally, I don’t perform as well when I do that to myself. So I’m just going to go out, have a smile, have a lot of fun.
“However long the team needs me to play, however long Marky needs, I’ll be doing my best to keep the team rolling.”
It’s only fun until the first one dribbles between your pads. We’ll see if Demko is physically ready, but a degree in psychology from Boston College – he’ll get his diploma in December – has helped the goalie be mentally prepared.
It helped Demko last year when he suffered a concussion during the pre-season, then sprained his knee one start after he was promoted to the Canucks from the Comets in mid-season.
Demko doesn’t believe in pressure, explaining that it is an inhibiting mindset that one can choose not to adopt.
But it’s hard not to see how this week, good or bad, will reflect on him.
“He’s a smart kid,” Canuck coach Travis Green, who previously guided Demko in Utica, said of the young goalie.
“He has matured a lot over the last few years. Pretty serious, wants to do well, very competitive. A lot like Marky. I’m not worried about Demmer at all.”
But pitching out of the bullpen is new for Demko. By the time he was healthy last winter, the Canucks were late enough in another non-playoff season that Green was able to give the rookie seven of the final 18 starts.
“It is different,” Green conceded of the long layoff about to end for Demko.
“A lot of goalies have to go through that at some point in their career. Marky went through that, and now he’s a starting goalie. It’s just a natural progression for most goalies. I think we’ve done right by (Thatcher) by letting his game grow, but also his maturity level grow, so that’s he capable of staying sharp in these times. But it’s easier said than done.”
His best work was in garbage time, but Demko finished his nine appearances last season with a solid .913 save rate.
“I think a lot of people on the outside kind of feel bad for guys who get hurt,” he told Sportsnet.
“Personally, I think it’s up to the guy with the injury to make the most of it. I thought it was a great year for me. I was finally able to be up here (in the NHL) for a good stretch of time. I think everyone is going to face adversity like that, but just being up here helps you grow. Playing whatever games I got to play last year helped me be better prepared for this season.
“I understand the situation: I’m a young guy in my first full year. I’m excited to see how many games I get. It’s my job just to be ready to go, whether it’s one game or 82 games.
“When you’re playing junior, college or the American League, you can kind of get away with some stuff. When you have a bad game, it’s not as big of a deal. But up here, everyone is watching and the demands are so high. Those are things you have to recognize. But at the same time, you’ve got to be able to block them out and just go out and play.”
The Canucks recalled minor-league goalie Zane McIntyre to back up this week.