‘Do or die’: Demko ready to lead Canucks to success from between the pipes

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) stops a shot against the Los Angeles Kings during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, March 18, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

VANCOUVER – Thatcher Demko is keenly aware of the goaltending legacy now entrusted to him.

Roberto Luongo actually captained the Vancouver Canucks. After him came Cory Schneider, and then Ryan Miller, followed soon by Jacob Markstrom. Long before Luongo, there was Kirk McLean.

These were not only excellent goalies, but fascinating people, thoughtful when they spoke. They became leaders.

At 27 and about to begin his fourth season as Canucks starter after succeeding Markstrom, Demko has shown he can be an excellent goalie in the National Hockey League.

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But now he has to take the Canucks to the playoffs as part of the leadership group empowered and acknowledged by coach Rick Tocchet and general manager Patrik Allvin.

“You look at all the goalies that have come through and had success, they were all leaders,” Demko said Wednesday on the eve of training camp in Victoria. “For me, I thought that was a big step that I took last year dealing with adversity and not being able to be around the team as much as I’d obviously like to. I was able to kind of take a step back and really evaluate my role and the role that I wanted to have — the effect that I wanted to have on the team and on the organization.

“You look at past guys like Luongo, and even going back to guys like Kirk and Richard Brodeur, all these guys had an amazing effect on the team and ultimately on the game. So I’m just trying to follow in those footsteps. Obviously, everyone is a different person and I’ll do it in the way that. . . fits my personality. It’s been an awesome experience to kind of be given that privilege and have it be publicly talked about by Toc and management. It feels amazing. I have so much pride when it comes to that stuff.”

For the Vancouver Canucks this season, nothing works without Demko.

All the improvements the team believes it has made – the organizational synergy and alignment between management and coaching staff, the upgraded defence, the depth at centre ice – none of it will really matter unless Demko plays this season like he finished the last one. And not like how he started it.

The “adversity” he mentioned – in a sports context, not a world context – is an understatement.

A year ago, coming back from off-season surgery, the goalie collapsed along with his team at the start of the season, winning just three of his first 15 games and posting an .883 save rate before tearing a groin on Dec. 1 and missing nearly three months.

By the time Demko was healthy, the Canucks had gone over a cliff and had a new coach. But the San Diegan restored his credibility as an elite NHL starter by going 11-4-2 with a .918 save percentage down the stretch.

That’s the Thatcher Demko the Canucks need this season if they’re going to make it back to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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“I feel much better than I did last year,” Demko told Sportsnet. “I think last year, I almost wanted it too bad. I came in a little too aggressively. I was trying a little too hard. I think if we can take anything away from last year. . . for myself, I learned so much just from a mentality standpoint, from a physical standpoint. I feel so much more at ease this year in a good way. I feel so much more confident. I know that I can perform. I know that I can have a good start. I think there’s pressure on us in a good way but I’m not here to add any pressure on myself. If you’re confident, then that pressure doesn’t seem so intense.

 “I knew that the beginning of the year wasn’t me. And I think the fan base knows that, I think the organization knows that and the media knows that. Coming back from that (groin) injury, obviously I was proving something to myself. . . and just reminding everyone around me that that’s who I am. I felt great about my game at the end of the year, so it was just a couple of tweaks here and there as far as the strategy heading into (summer) training and the training that I did mentally. I think I put myself in a fantastic spot to start this season.”

Demko appears to be in a fantastic spot in his life, too.

He and his wife Lexie had their first child, a boy named Dawson, in August. For now, Demko is keeping details of this precious family time to himself, although Lexie’s pregnancy and Dawson’s birth here further postponed the honeymoon Demko promised his wife a year ago when they were married in July but chose to return early to Vancouver so Thatcher could get in as much goaltending preparation as possible in the wake of his lower-body surgery.

It turns out, Demko probably trained too hard for last season.

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“Yeah, I think that’s maybe the case,” he said Wednesday. “I feel like I’ve managed that a lot better. When you’re maybe not as confident as you want to be, you tend to overtrain and try to do too much and compensate for something that might not be there. Obviously, you have to train hard and be in shape and be sharp. But knowing that I can do that without killing myself is a good indicator of where I’m at this year.”

Demko said he actually began training earlier this off-season, but moderated the intensity of the summer prep, ramping up to the on-ice work that began with goaltending coach Ian Clark in late August.

“It seems like in the past I’ve kind of taken a good chunk of time off and then I hit the ground running and it’s 100 miles an hour,” he explained. “You can kind of wear yourself out a little bit that way. So my strategy this year was just to kind of creep back into the gym a little bit earlier — just get moving and start feeling good about my body before I got into the heavy load on the ice.”

The heavy work really begins on Oct. 11, when the Canucks open their season at home against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Demko was one of three players – Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller were the others – asked by the Canucks to attend the Sept. 11 press conference announcing Quinn Hughes as captain.

As have several teammates, Demko spoke Wednesday about the “different vibe” around the Canucks this September, the sense of harmony and a common, singular purpose: winning.

Demko has been on the team for five years. This will be the fifth season for Hughes and Miller, the sixth for Pettersson and seventh for Brock Boeser.

“I think this year is do or die (for this group), to be honest,” Demko said. “We love this group of guys that we have here, this core. But we can’t really say that we’re a young group. We have plenty of experience. We have a certain maturity about us and you see guys stepping up. Like, if you told me two years ago that Quinn was going to be the captain, I’d have had a little chuckle. But he’s grown into that role and he’s grown into the person that can handle that.

“That’s just a testament to this core group of guys and the steps that we’ve taken as people and as players. So yeah, I think this year is full steam ahead. We don’t have anything to lean on as an excuse.”

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