Billett Gets His Chance
BC Junior Forms Strong Tandem in Net
by Michael King/Staff Writer
Not many goaltenders have defeated college teams at the age of 16. As the starter for the U.S NTDP U-18, Thatcher Demko earned several wins against Division I opponents prior to deciding on a home to continue his development. After his high-profile commitment to Boston College last winter, the prodigy appeared to be the logical choice to replace the graduated Parker Milner — who led the Eagles to a national title as a junior and the NCAA tournament last year.
But little is simple or obvious in college hockey. The Eagles maintain another goalie on their roster; one who may possess both the experience and talent to lead the program back to Hockey East dominance.
For junior Brian Billett, the challenge has been to demonstrate this ability. Already given an opportunity by coach Jerry York to prove his value, Billett and Demko split starts to begin the season. Then, the opportunity widened for Billett when Demko's suffered tightness in his hamstrings last week in practice; he will be out for another week or two.
This presented Billett with a pair of starts against Massachusetts and the chance to further lay claim to the starting role.
Billett led the Eagles to a 2-1 victory Thursday night in Amherst and 2-2 tie at home Friday. The Minutemen, though entering the weekend with only three points from five HEA games, are a team with a strong power play and several highly-skilled forwards who can generate chances.
Billett played well enough to win both games — and win comfortably. The Eagles had 61 shots on goal over the weekend and uncharacteristically scored just four times. Many were chances BC forwards usually convert.
More offensive support would have been welcomed, but more importantly, the Brunswick, Maine, native is relieved to be playing again consistently.
"When you get into a grove, that's when you get things going," Billett said. "And I've been fortunate enough to be splitting time with Thatcher. It's been good for the both of us, we definitely feed off of each other. It's a fun, competitive practice that we have — that's how you get better."
Understanding the chance before him, Billett utilized the offseason to improve his fitness and continue building the physical tools needed to consistently stymie Hockey East offenses.
"I was at BC all summer, working in the weight room," he said. "[Not playing a lot last year] has made be better and hungrier."
Despite Billett's poise against the Minutemen, and previously in wins over Wisconsin, Northeastern and Army, York has declined to name a permanent starter thus far. He only acknowledges that he will let the competition play its course.
"I think we have two really good goaltenders and they each will play a lot of games," the coach said after Friday's draw.
That message is clear to Billett.
"We're going to keep switching as of now, it's still early in the season," he said. "We have plenty of time to get better, and it's been a fun competition. We're really good friends now and that keeps things healthy."
The pair have bonded quickly. Billett wants his counterpart to return to health as soon as possible to continue the competition and help each other improve. It's part of the team-first attitude that the junior developed from two years behind the outstanding Milner.
"At any position you want your team to win," he said. "When I'm in net, it's my job to help the team win. It doesn't matter who's in there: Thatcher, (junior reserve goaltender Brad Barone). It's the same mindset to get wins and a national championship."
Historically, York has ridden one goalie down the stretch of the season — if not the whole year. Milner started 37 of a possible 38 games last year. In years past, John Muse, Cory Schneider and Matti Kaltiainen maintained similar workloads.
The benefits from a predictable goaltending situation are obvious. But a defined starter only favors the team if the right individual is identified.
Demko's potential is far too great to prevent him from getting more opportunities. The freshman looked especially strong against Boston University a week ago, but he has yet to be fully tested. Being one of the top goalie prospects to enter the college ranks in recent memory, Demko's projected by many to be a first-round pick in this summer's NHL draft in his first year of eligibility.
Billett appreciates his teammate's ability and the buzz surrounding his talent. But the junior simply wants to help Demko become a better player.
"Thatcher is an unbelievably talented individual — 17 years old — the youngest player in college hockey," he said. "Even though I haven't played too many games, I still have some experience and some things I can teach him. Before his first game, I told him 'how many guys get to play for BC and start in net.' He has that confidence and you see it every time he plays — it's fun watching him play."
Coaches love potential, but it's evident from the way York talks about Billett that he's pleased with the young man's progression.
"Clearly, Brian has made great strides," he said. "We just couldn't get him too much game action last year. We just didn't see enough that warranted that him jumping in front or splitting games with Parker. He's made a lot of progress. I'm proud of how far he's come."
Billett only saw action in two games last year as Milner took the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament. As a freshman, Billett made several key starts, including rewarding York's confidence with a 40-save performance at BU early in the season.
Demko will be out at least until the team's trip to Maine next weekend, leaving Billett to likely make the start Wednesday at Harvard. It will be his fourth-consecutive opportunity to leave a lasting impression on his coach before his fellow goalie sees the ice again.
Faced with a classic potential versus experience decision, it remains to be seen where York will place his trust. Past tendencies aside, this may finally be the year when it's not obvious in February who will be minding the BC net when opponents visit Kelley Rink.