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Unmasked: Canucks prospect Demko nears return

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com

SHAWNIGAN LAKE, British Columbia -- Vancouver Canucks goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko said his recent hip surgery is not a setback. He is more excited to see what he can do with two healthy hips.

When you hear how limited Demko's mobility was before having his hips repaired after his second season at Boston College ended in April, and consider what the 19-year-old has accomplished playing through the injuries for almost four years, it's hard to blame him.

"This will be the healthiest I have been. Ever," said Demko, who was Vancouver's second-round pick (No. 36) at the 2014 NHL Draft. "I have just been looking forward to the day I can play pain free for about four years. I'm excited to get some gear on and see what that's like."

Demko wasn't taking part in on-ice activities at Canucks development camp here on Vancouver Island this week, but he has skated in sweatpants since having the procedures on April 20 in New York. Demko will have to wait until next Tuesday to skate with his equipment on, and July 27 before he is allowed to drop into the butterfly again.

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With so many goaltenders having hip surgery, Demko is not at all nervous about dropping back into the butterfly, a position that led to his injuries 14 weeks after having them repaired. In addition to being pain-free, the San Diego native said he expects he'll have a wider butterfly and improved mobility.

"Way better than new," he said. "It should be fixed forever now. I had zero degrees of internal rotation last season and two weeks after the operation I was already at 20 degrees, so it was almost immediate."

That internal rotation of the hip is a function of goaltenders using the butterfly, dropping to the ice on their knees and spreading their feet out to the side. The more rotation they have, the wider that butterfly flares to the sides, which not only improves coverage along the ice but reduces the movements and time required to move laterally out of the butterfly, whether pushing side to side while staying down on the knees or recovering back up to the skates.

Goalies tend to push that internal hip rotation beyond normal ranges, and they do so while driving their bodies to the ice with so much force that a joint study by Bauer and McGill University equated a butterfly drop to an Olympic weightlifting clean and jerk. Any imperfections within that ball-and-socket joint can cause impingements that lead to torn labrums and, in some cases, cartilage damage.

The latter can be more troublesome, and some goaltenders, including Nashville Predators starter Pekka Rinne, who needed microfracture surgery, when small fractures are created in the bone on the socket side of the joint to stimulate blood flow and cartilage regrowth.

Most, including Demko, need to have labrum tears repaired, and any imperfections at the top of the femur bone, which forms the ball in the ball-and-socket hip joint, shaved off and smoothed out.

"They stitch up the labrum and they shape the hip itself just to make sure it never happens again," Demko said.

The procedure has become almost as common for goaltenders as Tommy John surgery for baseball pitchers. That includes a friend of Demko's who pitches for Boston College.

"He had the Tommy John surgery right when I had my hip surgery and we were joking back and forth about it," Demko said.

Demko admitted he had "some butterflies," an ironic choice of words, about having his hips operated on, but took comfort in knowing so many other goalies have been better after it, including Tim Thomas, who won his second Vezina Trophy, the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy the season after having his hip repaired by the same surgeon (Dr. Bryan Kelly). Demko also found reassurance talking to fellow Californian Eric Comrie, who was picked in the second round (No. 59) by the Winnipeg Jets at the 2013 draft after having his hips repaired earlier that season.

Watching Comrie fly around the ice at a goaltending camp in Kelowna, British Columbia this week, there were no signs of lingering problems. Comrie has always maintained he's stronger, faster and more flexible since the surgery.

"The big thing is to understand how much better you are going to feel after, and I just talked to him about the amount of flexibility and range you are going to gain and how much better you feel coming out of surgery. Just knowing that is huge," said Comrie, who had an impingement but no tearing before choosing preventative surgery. "You get so much more range of motion and flexibility."

The idea of Demko taking another step has to be exciting for the Canucks. He improved his save percentage from .919 as a freshman at Boston College to .925 last season having limited flexibility and mobility. Since first feeling the pinch in his hip while in the USHL at age 15 and being diagnosed and eventually needing surgery at 16, Demko won a silver medal at the 2012 World under-17 Hockey Challenge and 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championships. He was the backup goaltender for the United States at the 2014 World Junior Championship and the starter last year, finishing with a .938 save percentage despite having his hip lock up on him.

"Against Canada after the second period, I was in the locker room and I was just a stone wall," said Demko, who had the knee area of his pads built up last season to ease the stress on his hip by keeping his knee higher off the ice. "I couldn't move at all."

Demko said he tore his hamstring during his freshman season because his body was compensating for the hip injury, but he now won't need to tweak his equipment, his playing style or his body to move around on the ice. Some of the hitches and lateral delays that were evident in his movement at last summer’s development camp should be smoothed out as his hip mobility improves.

The Canucks hope Demko might turn professional after one more season at Boston College, and there are a lot of positives and intriguing possibilities that come with finally being fully healthy.

No wonder Demko was so excited, rather than apprehensive, about hip surgery.

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