By Jason Botchford September 15, 2016
PENTICTON — It took all of four days after hip surgery for Thatcher Demko to realize his life had just changed, forever.
It was April 2015, and Demko had just finished his fourth season of playing through injuries to both hips, which limited his movement and created a waterfall of other issues, including back pain.
By the time he had the surgery, he had zero degrees of internal rotation in his hips.
“Right on the dot, zero,” Demko said. “So past my knee, my ankle couldn’t flair out anymore.”
Improbable, then, he was able to do what he did. And that was post a .925 save percentage, establishing his place as one of the best goalie prospects in the world.
Some have said Demko essentially played the 2014-15 season on one leg.
Is it really how it felt?
He nodded yes, after his practice Thursday as he prepares to start the Canucks first game at the Young Stars tournament.
“Yes. There were definitely a lot of limitations,” he said. “It’s hard to explain and put into words. But it’s not just the hips that hurt.
“Your back goes out. Your groin starts hurting. Everything comes together.
“But now I feel free to move around. I’m a happier guy.”
Demko was asked to put a number on it. From 0-100 how did he feel before the surgery and how did he feel after?
“I’d say, it went from negative-50 to 100,” he said.
In fact, he could feel the difference just four days after surgery was over.
“Right after surgery, they get you moving, they want to get the joint moving,” Demko said. “Four days after the surgery, I already had more external rotation than I did beforehand.
“I felt like a different person. Not only physically, but playing hurt takes a toll on you. I felt rejuvenated emotionally as well.”
Interestingly, recovery wasn’t considered complete until April, a year after the surgery. Demko got more range of motion as the year went on, which is pretty encouraging considering he started his last season at Boston with six shutouts in his first seven games.
By the time the season was over, he had a .935 save percentage and was a Hobey Baker finalist, an award for the best player in the NCAA.
So, really, this fall is the first one Demko has been healthy in five years.
The timing couldn’t be more important as Demko transitions from the college game to the pros.
Generally, the transition is a difficult one, as goalies find they need to rely less on athleticism and more on positioning and technique to be successful.
This isn’t a point lost on Demko. Good thing, because you would assume instinctually Demko would want to use his dramatically improved post-surgery explosiveness as often as he could in the crease.
“You don’t want to use it too much because it will get you out of position,” Demko said.
“The (new found explosiveness) is more just there when I need it. If I have to make a split save, I’m able to do it, whereas before, maybe not.
“You definitely want to move less (in the pros) and be more efficient. Now I’m more mobile in different areas, which actually allows me to be more compact.”
When Demko plays his first game with the Canucks is anyone’s guess. He wants to play as soon as possible. The team wants to give him every opportunity to stick when he does, which likely means an apprenticeship in the AHL for two years.
The Canucks newly promoted goaltending coach Dan Cloutier, who is working with Demko in Penticton, is preaching patience.
“From what I’ve seen, the goalies who play in the AHL longer have stuck in the NHL longer when they’ve been called up,” Cloutier said.
“There are exceptions, don’t get me wrong. There are some guys who are ready. But look at Cory Schneider, he put his time in in the minors.”
In Demko, Cloutier does see a different goalie from the one he scouted before the Canucks in the second round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
“The biggest thing is his flexibility and his ability to make those desperate saves where he can spread out,” Cloutier said.
“It’s not that he never attempted those in his first year, but I found the (hips) restrained him. It was tight.
“You could sense that he had tightness in his hips.”
Was it amazing then he was able to have the success he had?
“Oh, for sure,” Cloutier said. “His butterfly, even if you’re not a goalie guy, you’ll see this weekend how wide it is now, how much flare he has.
“Before, he had a very narrow butterfly. All his lower body, including his back, is probably looser too.”