Column: How John Blue blazed a trail for Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko
Before San Diego native Thatcher Demko was promoted from his backup job to become the Vancouver Canucks’ starting goaltender last Tuesday, only one goalie born in California had ever played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Demko, who began his ascent with the San Diego Junior Gulls and Junior Kings, earned many new fans by coolly making 98 consecutive saves and blanking the hard-driving Vegas Golden Knights for 138 minutes and 40 seconds during the teams’ second-round playoff series. He gave up one goal — through a screen during a Vegas power-play — in Vancouver’s Game 7 loss — and stopped 123 of 125 shots in winning two of his three starts, nearly carrying the Canucks to the West final.
Before Demko earned rave reviews around the NHL he had a big fan in John Blue, the Huntington Beach native who preceded him in 1993 as the first California native to appear in goal in the playoffs. Blue was summoned in relief once by the Boston Bruins and made 30 saves as the starter two days later in a 4-3 overtime loss to Buffalo. “I made the cut,” Blue said, “but I didn’t quite win.”
Demko’s two victories made him the first California-born goalie to win a Stanley Cup playoff game, a meaningful moment for youth hockey here. His feats were especially appreciated by Blue, now a 54-year-old pastor and father of five in Costa Mesa. “One thing is just how far California hockey has come,” Blue said in a recent phone conversation. “When I was growing up in California I had football coaches that liked the game of hockey coaching [my teams]. So I never had coaches, and the rinks were so spread out and you’d drive forever to play.
“To watch Thatcher and, really, his career, he’s technically so good and sound. He’s what, 6-4? Dear God, I’m 5-foot-nothing. It’s fun to watch and to see that caliber of player come out of California now.”
According to hockey-reference.com, 46 California natives have played in the NHL but only three have been goalies. Joining Blue and Demko is Rancho Cucamonga native Collin Delia, who has played 18 regular-season games for the Chicago Blackhawks but no playoff games.
Surprisingly, Blue didn’t get his first hockey experience on pavement or inline skates. “I’m old. They had the four-wheel roller skates but no roller hockey back then,” he said. “We’d get a game or two over the weekend and we’d practice during the week and go up to Canada and play tournaments. I think one of the things that helped me was I’d go to a tournament and I’d see 40 or 50 shots. We’d always lose 7-0 or 5-1, maybe 10-1. It wasn’t good. But I saw a ton of shots.”
Blue knew he’d have to leave home to improve and recalled being 16 or 17 when he went to play in the U.S. Hockey League, which has evolved into a well-run and respected junior league. “I wrote letters to all the teams and got responses from two of them and packed up my bags one day,” he said. “I played high school football, and I played on a Friday night and told my coach, ‘I’ll be back Monday.’ Packed up my bags, kissed my mom goodbye and never came home. Went and tried out in Des Moines and ended up making it and stayed.”
Blue played at the University of Minnesota and was drafted by Winnipeg in 1986. He bounced around the minor leagues after college and made his NHL debut with Boston in 1992-93.
Blue retired after the 1996-97 season and became a pastor, specializing in launching churches. He also does project management and leadership consulting.
“It’s a natural progression going from hockey to being a pastor because in hockey there’s a lot of cussing and fighting and it seems to be the same as a pastor,” he joked. “People complaining and fighting and me cussing, so it’s a natural transition.”
Until the COVID-19 outbreak he regularly played hockey at Great Park Ice in Irvine alongside other former NHL players who live in Southern California. He’s a forward now.
“The last game I played was world championships [in 1997] and I got my equipment and got rid of it. Never touched it again,” he said. “Why would anybody play goalie? I just don’t understand it.” Nor would he let his son play goal at Mount Saint Charles Academy in Woonsocket, R.I. “To this day he’s still mad at me but I told him, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to let you play goalie. It’s the most miserable position in the world,’” Blue said. “He’s a forward. More glory and they throw less things at you as a forward.
“The difference with hockey now in California is you’ve got quality coaches. A lot of NHL guys have stuck around or coach. You’ve got camps and all of these things. I didn’t have a legitimate goalie coach, really, until college. Technically, I was just so terrible, unsound.”
As in Blue’s youth, there’s still no place in California for elite players to develop. Demko, 24, was 16 when he joined Omaha of the USHL. He made the U.S. National Development team and went to high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Canucks drafted him 36th in 2014 and he played for Team USA at the 2014 and 2015 world junior championships. He also had three strong seasons at Boston College. He made his NHL debut on March 31, 2018.
“There’s always been great athletes in California, in football and basketball and baseball. Great athletes just didn’t play hockey,” Blue said. “Now, they’re starting to play hockey and getting the coaching and you’re just going to see more.”
The NHL playoffs will resume Saturday after players decided not to play for two days in protest of racial injustice.
Demko was so spectacular that he overshadowed Vegas’ Robin Lehner, who shut out Vancouver three times in six starts. Goaltending was a significant issue for a few teams: Injuries forced Colorado to go to third-stringer Michael Hutchinson against Dallas, and he got little help as he gave up five goals on 35 shots in a Game 7 overtime loss.
The Bruins, ranked No. 1 before the pandemic paused play, weren’t the same after Tuukka Rask left during the first round because one of his children was ill. They were eliminated by Tampa Bay in five games in the second round. “We’ve said it before, we support Tuukka’s decision 100%,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “But then as we get back to work, of course it’s going to affect us.”
Finally, some uplifting news: Philadelphia Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom returned to the lineup on Thursday after undergoing treatment for bone cancer. Chemotherapy took his hair but not his courage.
The Flyers were eliminated Saturday in Game 7 of their second-round series with the New York Islanders.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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