VANCOUVER — It may have been a throwaway season, but there was never garbage time last year for Thatcher Demko.
As the Vancouver Canucks closed their most disappointing season this century with a meaningless stretch of games in May — future National Hockey League historians will be intrigued that the team’s dismal regular season ended AFTER the Stanley Cup playoffs began — Demko was still trying to prove himself.
Hollowed by his bout with COVID-19 in April, the Canucks’ new starting goalie was still playing like it meant something, which it did.
After losing his first four starts after the coronavirus crushed the Canucks, Demko somehow found the mental and physical strength to finish the season with a six-game stretch that exemplified his breakthrough as Jacob Markstrom’s replacement.
Playing behind what turned out to be the worst team in the Canadian division, Demko stopped 93.1 per cent of shots and won four times. His save counts in those wins: 42, 40, 32 and 40.
“People talk about Thatcher’s March and how well he played,” Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark told Sportsnet last week. “But what he did at the end of the season, after what he’d been through and what the team went through, was even more impressive to me. He stole games.”
Just imagine if he were healthy.
“I think the pandemic put perspective on a lot of different things,” Demko said Friday when asked about his recovery from COVID. “I didn't really follow the typical COVID ... how COVID usually works. I was okay for about a week or 10 days (after testing positive), and then around like Day 11 or 12, it hit me really hard. And that was kind of the time when they were pushing us back on the ice. I was like: 'Hey, like this is kind of just getting to me now.'
“Everyone kind of dealt with it a little bit differently. It was definitely hard that last stretch of games, really challenging. There was probably not a guy in the room that was feeling 100 per cent through the last game of the year. But those are the things I'm talking where you play through stuff. There's a bunch of speed bumps and you've got to try and figure out how to manoeuvre through them. Mentally, you can kind of take lessons from it.
“I think the intangible things that you can pull from those situations are more important than maybe the entire season itself. Obviously, we want to be a playoff team every year and that ended up not being the case last year. But I feel like there were so many things that I could pull from that to help as an individual and the group. Guys were saying around the end of the year, if you can get through last season, you can pretty much get through anything.”
After boosting his save percentage to .915 last season from the .905 of his rookie campaign in 2019-20, Demko is so eager for this season that he has been in Vancouver for nearly a month to get some extra prep work in with Clark.
“Pitchers, quarterbacks and goalies,” Clark said, naming highly technical positions that require extra preparation.
Demko looked in mid-season form last week during practices Canucks players staged at the University of B.C. Those sessions move inside Rogers Arena this week, ahead of training camp Sept. 23-25 in Abbotsford.
The fully-vaccinated 25-year-old from San Diego said he felt he took a significant step last season but, as bad as things went for the team, “it’s hard to look at last year in an overly positive light.”
“I feel like there's a ton more room for me to grow,” Demko said. “I think I can get a little bit better, a little more consistent start to finish. That just comes with experience. This year I just want to take another step as far as maybe my presence in the locker room and becoming a little bit more of a leader maybe and just solidifying my role on the team and making sure I'm there every single night.
“I think there's no reason we shouldn't make the playoffs this year. That's our goal every year, but I think this year especially, as a group we kind of have it in our minds that we want to prove to people that last year was (a) one-off and we still are that team that was in the playoff bubble (the previous season) and surprised some people.
"That's what everyone's goal is. Top to bottom, everyone wants to get back in the playoffs and do some damage. I think last year was a little bit of a wake-up call for the whole group (that) just because you did it one year, doesn't mean it's going to happen every year. Coming in this year, we're going to be ready to go.”