Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko isn't afraid to dream big.
Last year, as a member of USA Hockey's U-18 national development team, Demko put the names of the two Team USA netminders who won Olympic gold, Jack McCartan in 1960 and Jim Craig in 1980, on the backplate of his mask. This year, the BC freshman's backplate is dominated by an airbrushed image of the NCAA championship trophy, surrounded by the four goalies who've won it for the Eagles -- Bernie Burke (1949) Scott Clemmensen (2001), John Muse (2008 and 2010) and Parker Milner (2012).
"I think you have to honor what the guys have done here in the past," said Demko. "This school just has so much history, I don't think that can go unnoticed. It's something that's important to me, and something I think deserves a lot of respect."
But the San Diego native knows that dreams without hard work often whither. That helps explain another tribute on his mask. At the top of the backplate is a green shield that reads, "Big 'E' 35," adorned with a green ribbon and the words "Have A Purpose." "Big E" is Ian Jenkins, Demko's close friend who died in 2011, after a freak accident. Jenkins apparently fell off the back of a pick-up truck, struck his head, and never recovered.
"He was from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and one of the country's most highly-touted goalies. He was special, a special goaltender," said Demko. "His favorite saying was, 'Have a purpose in everything you do.' Every helmet I've had since then has that logo on the back to remind myself every day not to take anything for granted, to make sure you have a purpose in everything you're doing."
The tribute, and the quote, reveals a maturity that belies Demko's years. He is the youngest Division I player in the country, turning 18 in December. Yet, according to BC assistant coach Mike Ayers, a former All-American goaltender who worked with Demko on the U-18 team last year, the teenager has always been self-assured. "He's a kid who understands the big picture, not just this team now but the history of the team and the program," he said. "Anybody can say we have great players in front of him, but there's been a lot of nights when he's single-handedly won us games."
"For him to do it at his age, without being phased, is pretty impressive," said Ayers. "At the same time, Thatcher looks at it like he hasn't done anything yet here. That's the way he goes about his business. He has confidence within himself, which I think is enormously important as a goalie.
"He's not the chest-pounding type of guy. He's the first one to give praise to his teammates. He's the first one to take responsibility for a goal going in, even though it may not have anything to do with him. He takes ownership in everything he does, whether it's his work ethic, or the outcome of a game. Again, that's just him understanding the team game, and wanting to be part of something bigger than himself."
As a result of that work ethic, Demko has submitted a brilliant season for the No. 2-ranked Eagles, with statistics that also belie his age. Heading into the Hockey East tournament, where BC is the top seed, Demko has the country's lowest goal-against average (1.75), the second highest winning percentage (.806, with a record of 13-2-3), and the fifth best save percentage (.935). His Beanpot-winning performance led BC coach Jerry York to compare Demko to BC great Cory Schneider.
"Corey and Thatcher share a lot of similarities," said York. "They're very competitive young men. I have the wherewithal of being able to look back on Corey when he was a freshman, and how he reacted to situations, how he practiced, his maturity with teammates, press, and fans. I marveled at it.
"Thatcher has those same qualities," he said. "He's humble. He's a good teammate. He certainly works on his craft. So he's on that path."
Demko, along with standout freshmen defenders Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini and a raft of freshmen forwards like snipers Ryan Fitzgerald and Austin Cangelosi, also represents another chapter in a long-running serial of sustained excellence that York has written at BC. This team is rarely identified by a single class, but by blue-chippers throughout the lineup. A good example is Muse, who backstopped the Eagles to their third national title in 2008 as a freshman, and repeated the feat in 2010 as a junior. In 2012, Muse's understudy, Parker Milner, delivered one of the finest second-half goaltending performances ever seen in college hockey, guiding the Eagles to a 19-game unbeaten streak and a victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA championship game.
The offensive star on that 2011-12 team was a freshman phenom named Johnny Gaudreau. This year, Gaudreau is a junior, the nation's leading scorer (30 goals, 34 assists, 64 points) and a favorite to win the Hobey Baker Trophy as the country's top player. And Demko has assumed arguably the most important position in playoff hockey.
"The coaches did a great job of seeing the roles that each freshman could fill, and putting them in a place where they could succeed," said. Demko. "The rest of the classes just helped us out in that area. So it made the transition a little easier for all the freshmen.
While many teams -- on both the collegiate and professional level -- talk "family," few embody the concept as completely as the Eagles.
"Once you walk in the door, we accept everybody," said York. "You're part of the family. You leave your ego at the door, and now you're an Eagle. Our goal is to be the best team we can possibly be. We all understand that it might be a senior contributing, or it might be a freshman. There's no sense of entitlement with the older kids as far as, 'I'm the guy who has to lead the team.' Everybody is going to be part of this club.
"We've been fortunate to get some real character kids into the program, and they work hard. We have some really talented players who aren't concerned about whether they have more points than the next guy, or if the other guy is playing more. All that individual clutter goes into hurting teams. We talk about having one path, one goal, and that's to win trophies. You have to have good teammates, and you have to have a good team to do that. And some luck."
Like most families, there are good-natured rivalries. The winning culture of BC hockey is borne from in-house competition that's every bit as fierce as that provided by an opponent, said BC's senior captain Patrick Brown.
"With such good academics and a historic hockey program, so many of the top recruits want to come here because it has so much to offer. And that results in us getting a lot of good players," said Brown. "But as a player on the team, it also pushes you a lot, because we've got really good, fast, hard-working players who come in each year. It's not like, 'OK, I'm a senior, and my spot is safe.' It's never safe, because the freshmen class that comes in is going to be really good, just as good as the class before. It pushes everyone to get better, because each class is so good."
The relationship between Demko and junior goaltender Brian Billett illustrates BC's "team first" mantra. A capable goaltender in his own right, Billett (12-3-1, 2.44 GAA, and .920 save percentage) nonetheless welcomed Demko into the fold.
"It's been unbelievable since Day One," said Demko of his rapport with Billett. "The first day I was here, one of the first guys I ran into was Brian, and he's been a friend more than a goalie partner. Yorkie always talks about being happy for someone else's success, and I think we both have that quality going for each other.
"Whether he plays and gets a win, or I play and get a win, we're both the first guys on the ice, congratulating one another. We're glad to see each other play well, and that creates an environment that's pretty healthy and exemplifies the Boston College atmosphere as a whole."
Brown agreed. "It's very competitive, like any relationship is, especially between goaltenders," he said. "To Brian's credit, he works so hard, every single day, and he's the first one to compliment Thatcher in the locker room when Thatcher has an outstanding game. Brian's always complimentary, never negative, always positive. He's really active on the bench. In his own right, whether he's in the net or not, he's helping our team win games."
Even before the season officially started, Demko wasted no time establishing himself. "Day One of our first captains' skate, he's already standing his ground, taking his reps," Brown said. "He didn't want us putting pucks in the net between drills. He said 'That's not where they belong.' It was pretty funny."
"We had to put the pucks on top of the net," said the BC captain, laughing. "So he comes in as a 17-year-old, but he just stepped right in and controlled the net."
That control is evident in games as well. In the Beanpot final against Northeastern, and late-season games against Lowell, Demko got deposited on his backside more than once. None of it seemed to bother him.
"A big part of being a goaltender is being mentally strong," he said. "You can't let little things like that get in the way of your overall goal, which is stopping the puck. So it doesn't matter how many guys are in front of you, or how many guys are running into you. The only reason you're out there is to stay in front of the puck, so you have to stay focused on that."
Both Ayers and York said that in addition to Demko's calm demeanor and confident nature, their prized freshman displays a maturity in his game that is uncommon. York said he's most impressed with how Demko "reads the play. It's one thing to make a save, but it's another thing to analyze where the puck's going."
"He's very aware of tracking the puck and reading plays, just like a good defenseman," he said. "Thatcher's got that good hockey sense."
Ayers echoed comments made by Dave Quinn, after BC shut down the Terriers in the opening round of the Beanpot, regarding Demko's size and how he uses his 6-foot-3 frame to his advantage.
"What's really intriguing about him is his athleticism in the crease," said Ayers. "You talk about his poise and his control and his ability to use his edges and control slides, but when he has to come out of that shell and that comfort zone, he's able to exude an athleticism that, for a big kid, is extremely impressive."