Jesse Acciacca has been airbrushing goalie masks for the Boston College men’s hockey team for more than 10 years. Players usually scribble out a simple drawing with the BC logo, school crest, an Eagle, and a request for either a white or a maroon base, and Acciacca handles the rest himself.
This wasn’t the case for Thatcher Demko. BC’s incoming freshman goalie-the youngest player in college hockey this season-emailed Acciacca a full computer-generated rendering of what he wanted.
There’s the crest on the left, the logo on top, and a ripped, screeching eagle on the chin, but there’s also more. A row of runners, filled in with an American flag, make up the right side of the mask in between banners reading “Boston Strong” and “April 15, 2013.” The base is a rarely-used champagne gold. On the back plate rests an illuminated picture of the NCAA championship trophy surrounded by the four BC goalies who have raised it-names Demko can rattle off in a second: Burke ’49, Clemmensen ’01, Muse ’08 and ’10, and Milner ’12.
Around the trophy representing his goal for the future, Demko placed his past. The logos for his hometown team in San Diego, his USHL squad in Omaha, and the U.S. national development team circle the trophy, along with the logo for the foundation started in the memory of his friend Ian Jenkins, a goalie who passed away at the age of 15.
Demko has a respect for history, and that’s not surprising. His wild history is what got him to Chestnut Hill fighting for a starting goalie spot months before his 18th birthday.
There are only five sheets of ice in San Diego, and one of them is rarely used for hockey. This didn’t bode well for Demko’s father, Brenton, and his dreams of having a son play his favorite sport.
Brenton used to joke around with Demko’s mom, Danielle, saying, “We’re only going to have boys, and they’re all going to play hockey.”
Danielle always responded by asking what if they wanted to play the flute, like she did when she was growing up.
“I don’t care what he does after practice,” Brenton would quip back.
Despite his California upbringing, hockey is practically in Demko’s blood. His father shares dual-citizenship between the U.S. and Canada, and Brenton remembers watching Jim Craig, the 1980 Team USA gold medal goalie from the Miracle on Ice team, play for the Atlanta Flames when he was growing up. One of Brenton and Danielle’s first dates was at an LA Kings game with seats right up on the glass.
“I think he was trying to sell me on the sport,” Danielle said.
When Demko was born, his father was a huge Kings fan and regularly had their games on. One time Demko pointed at the TV and said he wanted to try it, so his dad got him a little puck and stick to hit around the living room. Sometimes Brenton would try pulling Demko around on two rollerblades, but he wasn’t very good.
Then, one day when Brenton was ready to give his son another chance at skating on the blades, the phone rang. Brenton went to answer it and came back to find a three-year-old Demko pushing himself around on just his right skate. Danielle and Brenton let Demko ride around for 20 minutes before switching things up, letting their son use just the left skate.
Brenton and Danielle divorced when Demko was about two-and-a-half, but the two remained close throughout his childhood.
“We traveled together for years and hockey, almost in a crazy way, kind of kept our family together,” Danielle said.
Major decisions were made as a group, up until the point when Demko felt confident enough to make them on his own.
Twelve years later, the phone rang again. Danielle, a former volleyball player at Arizona State, was 45 minutes away from coaching a match for her juniors team. A call from her son was the only thing that could possibly distract her while her girls warmed up.
It was a Wednesday before Halloween of 2010, and Demko was playing with the 16 AAA Jr. Kings team in LA. The USHL Futures draft had come and gone that year, and no team took the 15-year-old. Although he had already shown tremendous talent in the net, the draft happened right around the time of a massive growth spurt.
Danielle recalled her son complaining after one game that he’d stick his leg out to stop a puck like he’d always done, but his limb was jutting outside the post, leaving a wide gap for an easy score.
Now Danielle found herself locked in a bathroom and she couldn’t believe what her son was telling her.
“Mom,” Demko said,” Omaha’s calling me.”
There were some rumors flying around that the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, who had protected Demko, were working on a trade that would open up a roster spot at goal. Brenton followed all of it, and when the Lancers officially showed their interest he was on board. He liked the organization and thought it would be a good opportunity. Brenton, Demko’s advisor, and Bliss Littler, the Lancers’ head coach at the time, agreed that Littler should make the call to Demko so he could get his first taste of how junior hockey worked.
Demko called Brenton right after and the first thing he said was, “Dad, I’m moving to Omaha.” His father was slightly taken off guard, but it was nothing compared to Danielle’s reaction.
“Woah woah woah woah woah,” she thought. She told Demko she needed to call Brenton. She needed to call their advisor. She needed to call the coach before she sent her 15-year-old son off to play with 20-year-old men.
Demko didn’t say a word. He let his mother go on and on until she was finally done.
“Mom, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Demko told her when she finished freaking out. “Make whatever calls you’ve got to make. I’m going to Omaha.”
Two days later, Danielle and Brenton helped Demko pack up in LA and they were all in Omaha by Monday.
Now with a premier junior hockey team, ice time was no longer an issue like it had been back home.
“Trying to get ice time in San Diego for a goalie is insane,” Danielle said. “Thatcher’s story is so off the charts unusual.”
Brenton used to drive Demko two hours to LA and two hours back for a one-hour lesson. He did an inter-district transfer his freshman year of high school, which gave him more practice opportunities. He’d get driven to school at 8 a.m., stay for three hours, take public transportation over to the rink, get on the ice for an hour and a half, take public transportation back to school, get a few more hours of studying in, and then take a bus back to the rink for more practice.
He had monthly conference calls with a sports psychologist starting at the age of 12 to work on visualization and mental strength, taking notes and absorbing as much as he could. Whenever Demko was in a different place for hockey-Michigan, Canada, Massachusetts-Brenton would look up the best goalie coach in the area and get his son a lesson.
But it wasn’t Brenton forcing the game on an unwilling son. Demko loved it, and Brenton was following through on a deal he made early in his son’s life.
“If you put in the effort and have fun and show that you’re doing all the extra things between practices and you have the dedication,” Brenton told him, “then I’ll do my part.”
“He was always there for me,” Demko said of his father. “Never complained. I guess that just made it a lot easier for me to keep my love for the game when I was little.”
His mother put it best.
“If he was thirsty,” Danielle said, “Brent freaking gave him water.”
Although hockey was a priority for the family, it wasn’t the only one.
“[Brenton] loves his son, and always growing up hockey was not more important than Thatcher’s character and his grades,” Danielle said. “He would always say if you don’t have those two things it doesn’t matter what you do in hockey.”
Demko was supposed to stay in Omaha for three years, but then he did enough to get another call. It was the call that, indirectly, sent him on his path to Chestnut Hill. That call was from Mike Ayers, BC’s new goalie coach this season, and it came with an offer to join the USA Under-18 national team, which Ayers worked for at the time. For Demko, it was a no-brainer. He was in.
After showing some interest early, BC cooled off on Demko after 2015 goalie Chris Birdsall committed to the Eagles. Demko was devastated when he found out, and canceled an upcoming visit with what was his top school. With the help of his family, he shifted his focus to other options like Cornell, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Denver.
But Demko’s play with the national team last fall changed the minds of the BC coaches. Through 45 appearances with Team USA, Demko posted a record of 31-9 and set the record for the program’s single-season goals against average with 2.06. In late October, the team forced a 2-2 tie with a top-ranked Minnesota squad in what was one of the best games Brenton had seen his son play. A few days later, Demko’s team defeated Dubuque, an undefeated USHL team, 2-1 as he stopped all three chances in the closing shootout.
BC contacted Demko’s advisor after the impressive display, hoping there was a possibility he could accelerate and come in as a 2013 goalie to join the competition trying to replace Parker Milner. The family talked about it and, after Brenton spent a few weeks making sure the academic side could work, decided to make up that canceled visit.
On the December weekend of Demko’s 17th birthday, Team USA beat Merrimack in front of BC head coach Jerry York and assistant coach Mike Cavanaugh on Saturday and tied then-No. 1 New Hampshire in front of BC assistant Greg Brown on Sunday. BC offered Demko, now the No. 1 goalie recruit in the nation, during his visit on Monday.
“It was kind of a whirlwind thing and it’s crazy that it’s all come together like this,” Brenton said. “I pinch myself daily.”
Demko told all of the schools interested in him that he wouldn’t decide until Christmas time, which was two weeks after his BC visit, but less than six days later he couldn’t wait any longer. BC was where he needed to be, and after he committed there was only one thing standing in the way of him getting there-his senior year of high school.
Team USA earned the silver medal in Russia at the U18 World Championships last April. When Demko got back home he had from May 1 to Aug. 1 to finish five classes-including Spanish, two British literature courses, and multicultural literature-and become eligible for the 2013-14 college hockey season.
Brenton took Demko to Tahoe for a week and he studied six hours a day throughout the whole vacation. Danielle took him to Hawaii for 10 days, and Demko sat on the sand with his laptop, banging out papers while his family played around in the water in front of him. On the Fourth of July, he got up at 8 a.m. and worked until 3 p.m. finishing one paper.
“It was awful,” Demko said. “It was definitely a grind, but absolutely worth it.”
“If the reward was not having the opportunity to play at Boston College or one of the top level programs,” Brenton said, “there is no way in a million years I would ever put my kid through that.”
Demko finished on time and is now wrapped up in a three-way race for BC’s starting goalie spot with juniors Brian Billett and Brad Barone. Billett is expected to start tonight at Michigan.
“I try not to think about it,” Demko said of the pressure and attention surrounding his arrival on campus. “There are a lot of other unbelievable players on this team. I don’t think the spotlight should be just on me.”
“The decision on whether or not he’s playing is completely out of his control,” Brenton said. “All he can do is bust his tail every day in practice and work hard to get better where the coach has to put him in because he’s performing.”
Luckily, his parents are used to planning trips without knowing if their son will be playing. The national team never said a word about who would start.
“Living so far away,” Brenton said, “you just have to schedule your trips and hope he’ll be in the net when you get there.”
Whenever Demko gets his chance to command the Conte Forum net, he’ll have an illustrious history hanging in the rafters above him. That history will also rest on the back plate of his helmet-right where it belongs. Consistently in the back of his mind reminding the young goalie of what came before him, but not clouding his vision for a bright future.