Thatcher Demko does his best to focus on the present. For the Canucks’ blue-chip goaltending prospect, that means treating this training camp as if he is on the team and here to stay. At least, until the day he isn’t.
“Obviously I want to be in the NHL,” he says after Thursday’s practice and scrimmage, “but I’m pretty realistic with what the organization has in mind for me.”
And what the organization has in mind is clear: the Canucks have two goaltenders battling it out for the starting job this season and neither one is Demko. They’re content to let Demko percolate in the AHL, getting the bulk of the starts in Utica while Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson hold down the fort in Vancouver.
“Wherever I am, I want to be engaged,” he adds. “As long as they keep having me here, I’m going to have the mindset that I am on the team, just have that mindset until they send me back down to Utica.”
It’s a very philosophical outlook, which seems fitting: Demko minored in Philosophy at Boston College to go with his major in Psychology. But as much as Psychology and Philosophy seem ideal subjects for goaltenders, who are frequently pictured as a little eccentric and in their own worlds inside their heads — think Gilles Gratton — but Demko prefers to keep a gap between academics and hockey.
“It’s cool to have a bit of an interest away from the rink and I find that in philosophy,” he says, “but I try to keep them separated a little bit.”
Demko originally got into Philosophy simply because it was a core requirement for his degree. But he found the classes engaging and he got a good grade, so he stuck with it. As an added bonus, he found his Philosophy and Psychology courses had a fair bit of crossover.
While Demko left Boston College a year early to go pro, he’s still plugging away at completing his degree during the off-season. He may be focused on the present, but he’s still aware of the future.
“I like to think I’m going to be a hockey player for the next 100 years,” says Demko, “but obviously I’m getting my degree because I know hockey doesn’t last forever. When I left I had seven classes [left] and then I did two this past summer, so I have five left.”
As part of his scholarship, his tuition for his final courses is still covered as long as he keeps studying each summer. With the possibility of an independent study where he gets to pick his own research topic — “It would be cool to find a topic that interests me in both [hockey and psychology]” he says — he could be done his degree as early as next summer.
Demko is no stranger to studying all summer. He accelerated his senior year of high school to enrol early at Boston College, finishing up his course load during the summer. That meant long days in his hometown of San Diego, ignoring the sunny beaches in favour of 8-hour days stuck indoors staring at a computer.
“When he was accelerating school...that summer,” said his mother, Danielle, “he said, 'If I don't play 15 years in the NHL, I will be so pissed. I'm not doing this for three or four years in the show.'"
If the Canucks suffer an injury to one of Markstrom or Nilsson, that first year “in the show” could come this season. When Markstrom suffered a knee injury during the Canucks’ SuperSkills event last season, it was Richard Bachman that got the call. That left Demko in Utica to start a ton of games over the final two months, including playing three games in three nights on two separate occasions.
This year, however, Demko would love to be the Canucks’ first option and is eager to prove himself. Sometimes, a little too eager.
When he and Jake Virtanen stepped onto the freshly cleaned ice surface ahead of Thursday’s scrimmage, they heard a stern voice yelling at them to get off the ice. It’s the same voice familiar to beer leaguers everywhere: the dreaded “ice guy.”
“The ice guy was trying to make sure the ice is good for us, which we appreciate greatly,” said Demko with a smile. “He was yelling at us like we were going to mark it up before it froze all the way.”
Not wanting to get any additional skate marks on the still-soft ice, Demko turned his stick into an oar: “I was trying to paddle my way back to the bench.”
The pre-game chewing out didn't seem to impact Demko's performance in the scrimmage. All four Canucks goaltenders were on their games and not a single goal squeaked past them. That might have disappointed Canucks fans in attendance, but it didn’t seem to rattle head coach Travis Green.
“They were great,” Green said with a sardonic grin when asked about the performance of his goaltenders. “Fantastic goaltending.”
Beyond that, Green was tight-lipped about his goaltenders and Demko’s chances of getting called up to the Canucks’ lineup this season, repeating a sentiment that has been heard from him many times this camp: “It depends on how he’s playing.”
For Demko, that means continuing to stay in the present, both while he's here at camp and when he's playing for Utica. It means blocking out any thoughts of where he’s going to play in the future and focussing on each game, each shot, and each moment. “It’s tough to do that sometimes,” he says, “but I think that the guys that are able to do that tend to have a little bit more success.”
So, while Demko is still in camp, he’s on the team.