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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

How Ian Clark helped Thatcher Demko get through the toughest stretch of his NHL career

There’s a growing body of evidence that Ian Clark is the most no-nonsense goalie coach in the league. Clark’s honest and direct style of coaching has been praised by almost every goalie he’s worked with and Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko are no exception.

“He’s one of the best goalie coaches in the world,” said Canucks’ starter Jacob Markstrom a few weeks back via a Zoom call from his home in Sweden. “To work with him every day, it’s a privilege.”

It’s no secret how much of an impact Clark has had on completely revitalizing Markstrom’s game. The late Jason Botchford’s last story gave fans an inside look at Clark’s coaching philosophy in great detail.

He’s honest, stern, and upfront. He doesn’t pull any punches when telling his goaltenders how he feels about their recent performances.

This demanding attitude serves the Canucks’ goaltenders well. Clark is always sure to remind them to never get comfortable with where they’re at and to always be striving for more.

“I tell them to think about it like a skyscraper that has no top. Ok, we just climbed that flight of stairs up, now let’s turn the bend and do another. And another. And we’re never going to stop. That’s just the way it is. That is an important philosophical approach because we’re never there. As soon as we’re there, we get comfortable.” Clark told Botchford.

Demko was everything but comfortable when he was forced into the starter’s role after Markstrom tweaked his knee and was sidelined for at least four weeks.

In late February heading into March. When the games mattered most.

His team desperately needed to string together some wins in order to not find themselves on the outside looking in at the Western Conference playoff picture.

It’s no secret that the Canucks relied heavily on Markstrom this year, and it was no secret that they would need Demko to come up big on most nights if they were going to pull this off.

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It was the most pressure he’s ever faced in his young career.

“In those games, I thought there were things that I did well, but at that time of year, it’s not about different things that you’re doing well if the result isn’t there,” said Demko via Zoom Wednesday morning. “At that time of year, it’s all about the result. That’s the only thing that matters.”

The Canucks just didn’t get the results. They began on a high note, winning Demko’s first two starts but followed it up with three straight losses in games they probably win if they have their Vezina-calibre goaltender in the crease.

Demko allowed four goals on 24 shots against the Ottawa Senators and followed that up by allowing three goals on 29 shots two days later at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I don’t think I’ve felt that much pressure in a long time.”

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Ian Clark didn’t sugarcoat the situation that was ahead for his young backup turned starter.

“When all of that went down, he saw a good opportunity for me,” said Demko. “We had a lot of talks about what it would take. After some of those games on the road there, he was never shy about it, he was very blunt. He was just like ‘look, you’re in a situation right now where there’s a bit of added pressure. You’re either going to deal with that or crumble, it’s up to you.’ That’s when I came home and felt like I was stepping up my game. I wanted to be there for my teammates and for the city of Vancouver.”

As time went on, Demko began to feel more comfortable and relish the opportunity to be an everyday starter.

“I started to learn about it [being an everyday starter]. I learned how to manage it, and I felt like I was kind of just getting on a roll when all this stuff started getting going [Covid-19 causing the NHL to suspend its season].

Demko’s last three starts at home featured a single loss and two wins, including a Markstrom-esque 45 save performance that may stand as his last start of the 2019-20 regular season.

The next step for Demko will be finding the consistency needed to be an everyday starter at the NHL level, which is Demko’s eventual goal.

“I learned a lot this year being in the NHL for a long period of time. I thought there were a few games where I’d have a good game or good two games, and then my second or third start on that streak wouldn’t be as sharp or there would be something where it wasn’t quite right. Being the starter, being as able to play as much as I did the last couple of weeks I think it was a good thing for me to kind of learn how to be more consistent and what it really took in between games and that kind of thing.”

Not only did Demko manage to get through the toughest stretch of his young NHL career, but he now comes out of it a stronger, more confident, and more tuned in goaltender as a result.