On Jan. 25, at Pegula Ice Arena on the campus of Penn State, officials had just awarded captain Tommy Olczyk a penalty shot at 4:59 of the third period.
Boston College held a 3-1 lead and freshman goaltender Thatcher Demko, 18, was between the pipes.
During the timeout before the shot, the sound system blared an upbeat song and BC associate head coach Greg Brown couldn’t believe his eyes. Demko was dancing on the ice.
“I was surprised that he would be that relaxed,’’ said Brown. “They had just gotten called to take a penalty shot and the music came on the speakers, and he went from the bench back to the net and he was dancing and looking at the crowd and bobbing his head. Everyone has their own way to get ready. Sure enough, he did a great job on the penalty shot. It’s just a recognition of how relaxed and how comfortable he feels to be able to do that as a freshman. It must be the California boy in him.’’
Demko, who hails from San Diego, began his college career at 17 as the youngest player in the country. On Thursday, he will try to lead the Eagles to a spot in the NCAA championship game when BC faces Union in the Frozen Four semifinals at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. He is aspiring to become the first freshman to win a title for BC since John Muse in 2008.
Early in the season, coach Jerry York gave all three netminders playing time — Demko, along with juniors Brian Billett and Brad Barone. Demko missed part of November with an injury but has evolved into the player the program envisioned when he was recruited. He goes into Thursday’s game with a 16-4-3 record, a 2.16 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
For all his early success, it doesn’t mean he isn’t still a kid at heart. When Demko was spending time in the training room receiving treatment from sports medicine director Bert Lenz, he became obsessed with a game. It was a water-filled globe with a golf tee secured at the bottom. The object was to get the floating golf ball to land on the tee.
When he turned 18 on Dec. 8, he told York he wasn’t a kid anymore and put away the game — only to pick it up again later.
“I’ve learned he’s really fascinated with it,’’ said Billett with a laugh. “He definitely can be a little kid still despite being one of the tallest guys on the team [at 6 feet 3 inches].’’
Demko said it started as a way to pass the time and soon he was hooked.
“I started playing it quite a bit, probably too much,’’ he said. “Then I got into this routine where I had to do it before every practice or I wasn’t going to have a good practice. [It was a superstition] for about a month and a half. I got so sick of it that a couple weeks ago, I completely stopped. It was a good streak there.’’
Although the goalies are competitive with each other, Billett said it’s a special fraternity.
“No matter who plays, we’re in it together,’’ said Billett. “I’m happy with winning. I put my trust in Coach York. I think all three of us have. We have been getting a lot of wins and that’s what matters the most.’’
Billett said Demko stands out from the other members of his team because of his laid-back personality.
“He definitely was a quirky kid when he came in,’’ said Billett. “He’s still got a bit of that, but he definitely has a confidence to him now and he’s matured. He’s got that Cali-boy in him along with [freshman defenseman] Scott Savage and it’s funny to see them together. It’s good to see him grow. I think we make each other better in practice.’’
Demko, who has been a full-time netminder since he was 10, said he’s always been drawn to the position because of the pressure and responsibility.
“You’re either the hero or the goat,’’ said Demko. “It’s definitely a different kind of position from the rest of them.’’
As much as he is relaxed away from the rink, captain Pat Brown said Demko has a definite fire burning in him once he hits the ice.
“He’s super competitive and that’s what makes him so good,’’ said Brown. “As a freshman coming in at 17, it’s tough to come into a really good program and try to fight for that No. 1 spot. But he works so hard, he doesn’t let you score on him in practice. We’re not surprised at all when he makes great saves because he does it all the time in practice. Off the ice, he’s just the nicest kid. On the ice, he’s an angry individual who does not want to get scored upon and he’s going to do whatever it takes to stop the puck.’’
Demko seems to have the perfect mix between serious hockey and fun. In addition to the dancing — his favorite songs are “Just A Friend’’ by Biz Markie and “Sweet Caroline’’ by Neil Diamond — he enjoys connecting with the hockey fans even if they are rooting against him.
For example, in Worcester, during warm-ups before BC played UMass-Lowell in the Northeast Regional final, Demko was getting ready in his crease when he turned to see the River Hawks’ mascot revving up the student section right behind him.
The mascot caught Demko’s eye and turned his back, pretending to moon him.
Demko responded by doing the same.
“I was kind of bantering back and forth with their students,’’ said Demko, a big grin on his face. “Their mascot was banging on the glass and kind of stuck his butt out at me so I turned around and stuck my butt out. I just kind of messing around a little bit.’’
When the game started, though, he was all business and went on to beat Lowell, 4-3. It will be the same when he goes out to face Union.
“He knows the balance of being silly but also being focused once the puck drops,’’ said Billett. “Each goaltender has their own preparation and he has a real diligent pregame and once he gets on the ice, the whole looseness and what [assistant coach Mike] Ayers says ‘his swagger,’ I think that’s what really sets him apart.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Elle1027.