Thatcher Demko made his collegiate debut at Boston College on Oct. 13, 2013, backstopping the Eagles to a 7-2 victory against Rensselaer. Demko was the best goalie on the ice that day, but whether or not he was the best goalie at Conte Forum was up for debate, as Jon Gillies of Providence College was tucked away high in the stands as a spectator.
Gillies had met Demko in August at a United States World Junior evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. The two developed a relationship and often text each other. Gillies said he knew how eager Demko was to get into his first game and made the near-hour drive from his campus to Chestnut Hill, Mass.
"We hit it off from the beginning; we see a lot of things the same way," Gillies told NHL.com. "It's kind of grown from there, and it's been fun to share some things with him over the last couple of years."
Gillies was the starting goalie at the 2014 World Junior Championship for a United States team that finished fifth. Demko, the third goalie on that team and the only returning American goalie for the 2015 WJC, is expected to be the starter for the U.S. when the tournament starts Dec. 26.
Demko and Gillies have continued to uphold what's been a high pedigree of goalie play for the United States junior program during the past decade.
"A lot of teams are putting a lot of emphasis on goaltending and making sure it's getting the attention that it deserved," Demko said. "It's definitely something that everyone is keeping an eye on so we want to make sure we have the best guys representing our country."
Demko and Gillies both said they push each other to be better, while the goalies that came before them paved the road. It's all part of an inclusive community that's working toward producing the best possible results in the crease, according to Mike Ayers, an assistant coach at Boston College and the goaltending coach for the World Junior team.
"The way it's done, the way kids are identified at this point, especially on a national level, you separate those top-end kids in terms of their attitude, their work ethic, obviously their athleticism; all those things are incorporated in the decision," Ayers said. "And then you put them in a situation to succeed."
Gillies does own a gold medal, which he won backing up John Gibson at the 2013 WJC. As Demko did working under Gillies last year, Gillies said the experience of being around Gibson and learning from him was invaluable.
"When I got back from our gold medal-winning team and I sat down and was talking with my coach about it at Providence, and even my dad, I said, 'John Gibson is probably the best goalie I've ever played with and ever seen,'" Gillies said. "It was a good lesson on how to carry yourself in the game; not get to high and not get too low.
"I firmly believe by the end of his career he's going to be a top-five goalie in history."
Ayers said USA Hockey isn't trying to do anything major in terms of working with its goalies; just continue the development path.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, that's for sure," he said. "We're trying to get guys that are athletes, are competitors, and then add a little bit of a technical piece to it to help them let that athleticism and competitiveness shine, and be most efficient when they play."
And most of its players come in carrying some kind of distinction already. Gillies was a third-round pick (No. 75) of the Calgary Flames in the 2012 NHL Draft. A year earlier Gibson went 39th to the Anaheim Ducks. In the 2014 Draft, Demko went 36th to the Vancouver Canucks.
"When you have good kids as role models for the younger guys out there, and they want to follow in their footsteps, I think that's great for hockey," Ayers said. "We're saying that with a lot of players. I know that Thatcher looked up to Jack Campbell and John Gibson, and Jon Gillies for that matter. They want to beat them."
There's no shortage of successful goaltenders that played for the U.S. at the World Juniors. From the Detroit Red Wings' Jimmy Howard to Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils, all the way back to Mike Richter, the under-20 American WJC goalies have plenty to look back on for inspiration.
"I remember watching Campbell and [Mike] Lee win the gold , and then obviously I remember watching John Gibson win the gold," Demko said. "Those are guys you look up to when you're coming into it. When I was watching them I had no idea I would be in his position with a chance to make the World Junior team.
"The position that I'm in now is somewhere I want to follow in their footsteps."
Gillies and Demko still see quite a bit of each other as Hockey East rivals. Earlier this season, the two met at Providence's Schneider Arena in a 1-0 Friars win, Gillies' first victory against Demko in three tries. The pair combined to make 80 saves (43 for Gillies, 37 for Demko), in a game each said going into they knew they'd have to perform their best.
"We're friends up until game time. We're both competitive guys and we both want to win," Demko said. "Once he hit the ice surface we're enemies for a few hours, and that's just how it is in the sport."
That is, unless they're both wearing red, white, and blue.
Author: Evan Sporer | NHL.com Staff Writer