Growing up in San Diego, Thatcher Demko hardly knew that college hockey — much less the Beanpot tournament — existed.
That changed in 2012. Demko was playing with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League when, with a group of teammates that included Boston College commit Matt Gaudreau, he watched Boston’s annual four-team tournament for the first time. Matt’s brother Johnny, then a freshman at BC, was playing against Boston University in the championship.
The game will long live in Beanpot lore. Eagles forward Bill Arnold scored in the final seconds of overtime after the Terriers twice erased one-goal deficits. This, Demko realized, is what Beanpot hockey is all about.
Many of the characters from that game are still involved in the tradition. Arnold is an assistant captain for BC, Johnny Gaudreau its star left wing. Matt Gaudreau is a freshman forward ready if his name is called, while Demko is his classmate and the second-ranked Eagles’ starting netminder.
“That is the first time I had seen it, two years ago,” Demko said Saturday in a phone interview. “I didn’t know it was such a huge deal. I heard about it, and people would always talk about it in the hockey community. But now being able to play in it, you kind of understand the vastness of the tournament.”
BC (21-4-3, 13-1-1 Hockey East) is in search of its fifth straight Beanpot title, taking on Northeastern (16-9-3, 8-6-1) in Monday’s championship at TD Garden. The Huskies haven’t raised the trophy in 26 years.
Winning the Beanpot carries a significance that needs no explanation to those who grew up in the Bay State, and that includes one-third of BC’s roster. But Demko handled the learning curve and is well aware of what a victory Monday would mean, so much so he said the game ranks among the most important he’s ever played. Only the gold medal game in last year’s Under-18 world championships — his US team lost, 3-2, to Canada — comes close.
“It would be a huge honor for our team to win it,” Demko said. “I grew up an outsider, but I wouldn’t consider myself an outsider now, just being in the Boston community for five months now. You kind of adapt quickly just because of the intensity about hockey around the city and around campus.”
A game of this magnitude could not come at a better time for Demko, who after platooning with junior Brian Billett most of the season has started all six of BC’s games — all wins — since Jan. 18. In that time, Demko has posted a .939 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average, numbers in line with his season stats (.932, 1.83). The stretch includes a 30-save shutout of Providence in which he outdueled sophomore Jon Gillies, one of the best netminders in the league.
Demko is quick to credit his teammates — the Eagles have more goals than any team in the country, after all — but the point is clear: He’s been in a groove.
“When you’re splitting time, you’re playing every other game, you kind of have a hard time getting into a rhythm. It’s hard to stay focused throughout every weekend,” Demko said. “Playing every game the last couple of weekends here, it’s been nice to kind of get in a rhythm and stay into it and just know you’re going to hop back in next weekend.”
Demko made 27 saves in a 3-1 win over BU in the Beanpot semifinals last Monday, drawing more praise from coach Jerry York.
“Thatcher kept them off the boards,” York said after the game. “There was one save, a remarkable save right around the crease area. They made a tic-tac-toe play. I have to see the tape — I don’t know how it stayed out of the net.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that he could handle something like this and play well. Thatcher, as I watch him, he’s getting more confident. He handles the puck now. He reminds me a lot of Cory Schneider at the same age.”
Strong words about a netminder who turned 18 in December. Schneider backstopped the Eagles to two Frozen Four appearances in three years before moving on to the professional ranks. He is with the New Jersey Devils this season.
With a win Monday, Demko — a potential first-round pick in the 2014 NHL draft — could give BC something Schneider never did: a Beanpot title.
In a way, though, that’s just the beginning.
“They call it the trophy season,” Demko said. “It’s this one, then the Hockey East championship, and of course the national title. So it’s kind of the big start for the big trophy we’re trying to win as a team.”