Defending the Wall Thatcher Demko's return from hip surgery

Each time a shot sailed toward the net, Thatcher Demko stiffened up.

Demko knew he had a simple task: Do whatever he could to avoid having to hear the irksome sounds of a foghorn and a fight song that wasn’t “For Boston.” All that took was preventing an oncoming puck from hitting the twine 48 inches behind him. Demko had done it for years, the same way his father, Brenton, showed him on the roller hockey rinks of San Diego.

Watch the puck. Anticipate the location. Drop your knees. Demko followed the procedure just as every goalie does.

But he no longer felt as limber. Falling to the ice now felt like a dive from 10 meters up. Even if he did stop the shot—and through Boston College’s 2014-15 season, he usually stopped the shot—just standing back up became a climb. The most menial and routine movements changed into an agonizing adventure for a goaltender upon which the Eagles’ chances at winning a title completely depended.

Demko wasn’t about to let anyone see his pain. He forced himself back into position again.

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Okay, time for a science lesson.

For almost four years, Demko has dealt with immense pain from tears in his acetabular labrums, a ring of cartilage at the hips. The injury prevents goaltenders from having internal rotation in the pelvis, which help them fall into the butterfly. Most use this position, which spreads the legs in a V, to prevent pucks shot toward the five-hole. Goalies need a lot of rotation in the hips so they can spread the butterfly wider to the sides of the net, cutting the time and movement they need to come out of the position while covering more ice.

By using the butterfly, they put serious strain on the hips’ ball-and-socket joints. This can worsen if a goalie has imperfections in the femur bone that rubs against it. If it goes unrepaired for too long, it can cause fractures in the leg.

Goalies who feel hip pain often opt for an arthroscopic surgery to fix tears in the labrum before it gets to that point. Although it’s always a risk to go under the knife, this particular procedure has become as common for goalies as Tommy John surgery has for pitchers. Many have chosen this route and recover to almost full strength—no better example comes to mind than former Boston Bruin Tim Thomas, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2009, got the surgery, and rebounded to win the Vezina and the Stanley Cup in 2011.

The summer after his freshman year, Demko considered choosing this route, too, but getting surgery after his freshman year would’ve cost him the first half of his sophomore year. Demko was unwilling to give up any time he had in college, or worse, cut a season short once it had already started.

So he kept going. And each time Demko went down for a save, he felt that same extreme discomfort. Yet he had no choice but to continue, even if he’d wince every time he reached for the puck—the only thing worse than playing in pain was watching others command his net, something he describes as his biggest pet peeve.

His lowest moment came during a game early in the 2014-15 season against Harvard, when a flu diagnosis forced him to the sidelines. In his place stepped Brad Barone, a senior starting his first career game. Throughout those excruciating 60 minutes, Demko leaned over the boards, teetering in anxiety over the lack of control he had over the game.

“I get more nervous for those games than I get for the ones I play,” Demko said. Barone didn’t ease his fears. The Eagles lost 6-3—their first loss to the Crimson in eight years—capping off their first four-game losing streak in a decade.

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From that point on, Demko committed to staying on the ice, regardless of how his hips felt. Judging by the results, it’d be hard to tell Demko had any pain at all. He put up nearly identical statistics to his freshman campaign, albeit in 11 more games. Demko compiled a 19-13-3 record, with a .925 save percentage and a 2.19 goals against average—all three totals fourth-best or better in Hockey East.

And it was more than just his numbers. Demko seemed to have a calmer presence in between the pipes last season than in his freshman year. He no longer became frustrated when things didn’t go his way, like he did when BC suffered an epic, team-wide collapse during the first round of the 2014 Hockey East Tournament against Notre Dame. He remained poised in high-pressure situations, something important when playing for a school consistently in playoff contention.

BC also couldn’t afford to have anyone else in between the pipes. The Eagles’ offense took a nosedive from 4.10 goals per game in 2013-14 to 2.82—first to 24th nationally. York expected an offensive dropoff with the loss of the super line of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes, and Bill Arnold, but even the typically discreet head coach admitted that goals were hard to come by last year for his young corps of forwards thrust into the spotlight.

Any chance of BC’s tournament hopes relied on the shoulders—and secretly, the hips—of the second-year goalie. Demko caught fire when the calendar shifted to 2015, leading the Eagles to a 7-2-2 stretch against Hockey East opponents plus a Beanpot consolation game win over Harvard in 2015.


But the Eagles called on Demko one more time to lead them to a signature win to clinch a first-round bye in the Hockey East Tournament and, more importantly, to guarantee them a shot at a spot in the Tournament. With two games remaining, he’d have to two chances do it on the home turf of the team that left a lingering bitter taste in his mouth from his freshman year: those pesky Fighting Irish.

He only needed one. And it took all his might on those balky hips to do it.

Demko repeatedly hobbled from post to post, sprawling to deflect and catch any puck from a Notre Dame offense desperately clinging on to NCAA Tournament hopes. He finished the game with 35 saves and a shutout, his only one of the season and by far his most masterful performance.

But that doesn’t compare to the save that got college hockey its 15 seconds of fame on ESPN, other than when the folks up in Bristol allow John Buccigross to indulge himself for the final five minutes of his SportsCenter segments.

BC’s backs stayed firmly against the wall in the third game of its Hockey East Tournament series against Vermont. Down one game, Demko needed a perfect show to keep the Eagles’ hopes alive. With the Catamounts on the attack, BC’s defense fell into position. A shot rocketed in, but was redirected by Steve Santini. Demko sold out to his right. The puck sailed just past his pad but clanked off the post, ricocheting behind his back right to UVM’s Mike Stenerson. Noah Hanifin stuck out his stick in a desperate attempt to divert a shot that Demko had no chance of snagging.

Immediately, Demko rose up and turned his head to the opposite side. He lunged to the left, glove first, sprawling out onto the ice to make the catch. It was the kind of save that elicited that same aching rigidity in his joints. But with eyes on him again, Demko wasn’t about to reveal any sign of weakness.

“I think [Stenerson] kinda fanned on it a little bit, which helped out,” Demko said coyly, laughing behind a sheepish smile.

That pain Demko had since he was 15 years old finally caught up to him. He conceded that he often felt as if he couldn’t keep going at that rate. Plays that once seemed easy for him developed into taxing trips from a standing position to a crouch and back up after a rebound. He could still make those plays, but he risked furthering that injury and jeopardizing his professional career with the Vancouver Canucks—the team that not only drafted him but views him as their goaltender of the very near future. By March, it became difficult for Brenton to watch his son’s constant laboring in the net.


His workload last season only increased the torment. Demko played the most minutes in the conference last season—a whopping 2,107. He wouldn’t have had it any other way, but to play as much as possible this year, Demko, in consultation with BC’s coaching staff and his family, decided it was time to have the surgery.

“You don’t want to ever have surgery until it’s absolutely necessary,” York said, “and it was absolutely necessary.”

Demko flew to New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery on April 20 to have the procedure done by Dr. Bryan Kelly, head physician for the New York Rangers and the same hip specialist who helped Thomas. The road to recovery began, forcing Demko away from hockey that summer for the first time in his recent memory.

This didn’t mean spending his days relaxing on the sunny shores of Southern California. Demko worked his ass off every day to recover from the surgery to be ready for opening day of the 2015-16 hockey season. For a kid who once finished his entire senior year of high school across three summer months, coming back from a hip injury would be just like a walk up the Million Dollar Stairs—tiring, but easy enough to do quickly and effectively.

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Only 24 weeks after his surgery, the Eagles were set to take the ice for its first full-speed action since falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Denver. The pressure was on BC to put up a good showing in this scrimmage against the University of New Brunswick—the USCHO named the Eagles as the top squad in all of college hockey.

With a team seemingly devoid of faults, thanks to a strong incoming freshman class and the development of Alex Tuch and Zach Sanford, only one question remained: would Demko be ready to strap the pads on for the beginning of the season?

At Hockey East’s media day on Sept. 21, York gave no guarantees about Demko’s health. But despite not feeling the 1,000 percent he aimed for, Demko told his coach there was no chance he would miss any time.

So Demko suited up and went out onto the ice. Staked with an early lead courtesy of freshman Miles Wood, Demko had the support he lacked all last season. It took only 20 minutes for him to remind the country what he can do, deftly tossing aside 16 shots from the Varsity Reds, one of Canada’s top college teams, with no puck finding the back of the net.

With Demko’s case proven, York substituted in Chris Birdsall, a freshman whose commitment two years ago nearly discouraged Demko from choosing BC. York stressed the need to get Birdsall some game action this season, preventing Demko from taking on a huge workload just after his surgery and hoping to help his young player develop. He understood that the Eagles needed a backup plan, especially after seeing how Steve Addazio and the football team have suffered following the loss of starting quarterback Darius Wade.

Birdsall proceeded to give up five goals in the second period in the Eagles’ 5-2 loss. It’s hard to place too much pressure on a freshman, but his performance proves just how valuable Demko is to this team.

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If you ask Demko about his team’s chances or why the squad is ranked first overall, he’ll give you the answer he’s been conditioned to provide—that rankings don’t matter, that a lot of it has to do with BC’s reputation, that it’s all about his teammates and their strengths.

Yet it’s Demko himself that holds the swing vote. Without him, the Eagles are a good team that returns to the old BC way of putting up a ton of goals with an unspectacular defense.

With Demko, the Eagles have a better chance than any other team to claim their sixth national title.

BC will open on the road before coming back home on Oct. 16 to play Wisconsin. The Eagles will prepare for the puck drop with the sounds of “Numb/Encore” by Linkin Park and Jay-Z blasting over the Conte Forum loudspeakers. Demko will probably dance along to the music as he always does, before getting set by dropping into the butterfly.
And this time—for the first time since he arrived—Demko will get back up without feeling anything.

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Images by Graham Beck / Heights Senior Staff | Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff

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About Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan is the editor-in-chief of The Heights. After shouting out this space to his mother for two years as sports editor, he'd like to give one to his dad. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelJSully.