So after the 1st game of the weekend in London, Toronto management got on the phone for goaltending reinforcements in the form of Garret Sparks. The Elmhurst, Illinois native was called upon to solidify the crease so the boys could leave London feeling good about themselves and the weekend overall. In the finale the Baby Buds dressed their “A team” and it showed in a 6-2 win over the Pens, who in all fairness may not have the deepest prospect pool in the league. That said, Toronto’s skill level among the youth was something to behold as it was allowed to show itself off properly with the calming influence backstopping them in Sparks in a 6-2 victory.
Corey Connolly of LeafsHub.com was at the MasterCard Centre last year when notice was given that Sparks would be sent to the ECHL. Connolly was my search partner in London and we spoke at length about the goaltender and last season. When writing or discussing cuts and demotions, it is easy to forget the human side. It can be a difficult time and very emotional being so close to your dreams and having it seemingly pulled from your reach. A year removed, Sparks arrived in London for practice Saturday morning with the demeanour of a professional. The netminder made his way through practice with a proficiency reserved for big leaguers. In the post practice interview his game was probably even sharper. I stood by as Sparks spoke to Paul Hendrick about his plan for the upcoming season and some of the lessons he’s learned along the way. Listening to the former member of the Guelph Storm speak, you quickly realize Sparks is a cerebral young man. He took full responsibility for his circumstances last year, including an injury that shelved him for a couple months. He felt he wasn’t in the condition he could have been in and has spent this offseason making sure there’s never a re-occurrence. He talked about only having 3 years on an entry level contract to prove your worth and he wasted some of those months on injury. An injury he could have avoided if he was as prepared as he is now. Not the typical generic player answers you may hear, and Sparks finished the interview with a “Zinger” for our friend of Leafs Nation, Mr. Hendrick. As he “dropped the mic” and concluded his press time, I was intrigued by how Sparks carried himself on and off the ice and wanted to find out a little more.
After practice I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with Marlies Goaltending Coach, Piero Greco, on the difference between Sparks when he was demoted last season and now.
How did he respond to the setback?
“Garret took the news like a man and what he did was he made the most of it.”
I knew the goalie fared well in Orlando, but just how well? Greco had this to say,
“Garret didn’t just play good with the Solar Bears, he played out of his mind. In many ways it’s actually easier to play goal in the AHL than the ECHL. The higher level being more structured and you’ll have more quality chances against down below. He faced 50 plus shots regularly and was up to the task night after night. Garret went down with the right frame of mind and that was to get better every day, work hard on and off the ice.”
Greco spoke with conviction and pride when talking about his pupil. I caught up with Greco once more after Sparks guided the Leafs squads to a victory closing out the tournament.
“You see him out there tonight and in practice, he’s come a long way after being sent down last year. He could’ve have hung his head or felt sorry for himself, but he didn’t. He got to work. He’s a bright young man and now Garret is stronger physically and he’s stronger mentally. Going to the East Coast league not only made him into a better player, but a better person.”
When news Christopher Gibson had been traded in a five-for-one deal LeafsHub.com was not surprised. There was no chance the Maple Leafs were going to look Sparks in the eyes and send him back to the ECHL after the character and growth he’d shown this past season and leading into camp. His performance allowed the trade to take place, and he’s not alone in that regard.
GARRET SPARKS TODAY
Thanks to SEER VIDEO and YouTube for the above highlight reel.