Watching Thatcher Demko in action, it's obvious why the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder is considered one of the top goaltending prospects available for the 2014 NHL Draft.
"He looks like a pro," NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "He's big, strong, great positionally. He's got a great feel for the game. He's able to sustain pressure, holds his ground. … He's quiet, he's calm, he's poised, he doesn't get rattled. He's a big kid. I just like his approach. I like his presence out there. There's a lot to like."
How Demko arrived at that high level, though, is a bit of a surprise.
Demko grew up far removed from hockey country in San Diego, Calif. However, his father, who has dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship (his parents live in Guelph, Ontario) wasted little time putting his young son in front of the TV when NHL games were on.
"My dad has been a huge hockey fan, so when I was little he put me in front of the TV screen, and I pointed and said I want to try it," Demko told NHL.com. "He put me on the ice [and] I hated it my first time. We waited a year and I came back when I was about 5 years old and I just took off."
However, "taking off" at hockey in San Diego had its own obstacles.
"It was tough," Demko said. "You say you play hockey and everyone assumes you play roller hockey or field hockey. It's a little difficult, but you've got to push through it."
Demko started his push with the San Diego Jr. Gulls, where he "kind of stayed under the radar." That didn't last long, though, as scouts quickly took notice of the big, talented goaltender. He moved north to Los Angeles prior to the 2011-12 season to play for the L.A. Jr. Kings, and then moved again, joining the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League.
Playing against older competition was a big eye-opener for Demko, who had a 2.87 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in 15 games.
"It was definitely a great experience," Demko said. "Fifteen years old is a little young to be going there, but I was put in a really good situation with Omaha. … Alex Lyon was the other goalie, and he was an unbelievable guy. He taught me things, made sure I was OK. I was taking notes on him in my goalie notebook. That year I didn't play a lot, but I was a student of the game and learned a lot of things."
What he learned paid off in a big way at the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, when he helped the United States to a second-place finish while leading the tournament in GAA (1.09) and save percentage (.949). He also got into a few games with the United States National Team Development Program's under-17 team.
Last summer he joined the USNTDP on a full-time basis, and after starting on the U-17 team, he earned a full-time promotion to the U-18 team. In 46 games, he went 30-9-4 with a 2.08 GAA, .910 save percentage and six shutouts. He capped his season by backstopping the United States to a silver medal at the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship; while starting all seven games, he posted a 2.24 GAA, .899 save percentage and one shutout.
"It [the USNTDP] taught me how to be a pro," Demko said. "It taught me a bunch of different little things about the game that most people don't look at. What you do away from the rink, taking care of yourself, what it takes at school. It taught you how to train, because there's a way you have to do it to be successful."
That success helped earn him a scholarship to Boston College, where he'll start the season as one of three goalies looking to replace Parker Milner, who graduated after helping the Eagles reach the NCAA East Regional last season.
"Thatcher is going to come in, he's demonstrated he's got a lot of good goaltending skills," BC associate coach Greg Brown told NHL.com. "He's a little younger than the other two goalies, but I think it'll be a good competition for the net."
The Boston College net won't be the only one Demko is competing for. He was one of four goaltenders invited to USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in August, and despite being the youngest of the four, survived the first round of cuts, meaning a strong start to his college season could earn him a spot on the U.S. team that goes to Malmo, Sweden, for the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. Brown, an assistant coach on the WJC team, said he saw lots to like watching Demko against high-level competition in Lake Placid.
"You get to know him better as a person instead of just watching him," Brown said. "Whether you're eating nearby or you talk in the hallway, it's what we already thought -- he's a solid guy."
Demko said he's trying to block out thoughts of going to Sweden, as well as the other big event coming this season: the 2014 NHL Draft.
"If someone tells you they're not thinking about it [the draft], they're lying to you," Demko said. "The biggest thing is just managing it. That's something I learned a lot from the guys on my team last year because it was their draft year. They did a really good job of thinking about the team, thinking about the game and not thinking about the draft, because if you think about the draft, it's going to hurt your game because you're focused on something other than the game. If you think about the game you'll do better in the draft."
Entering the season, Demko is doing about as well as he can.
"He's got the feel for the game, which really helps," Jensen said. "Some goalies don't have a feel for the game and they're too mechanical. He's got a great feel for the game, he's relaxed. You can see it out there. That's a lot of why he's as good as he is right now."