Sparks Fits the Maple Leafs Mold
When the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Guelph Storm goaltender Garret Sparks in the final round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, our Twitter feed totally exploded with fans wondering who, what, when, where and why. For with the recent addition of Djurgarden’s Mark Owuya, and the terrific rookie season by Ben Scrivens helping him earn a new two-way contract, many believed that the Leafs goaltending aisle was stocked for many years to come.
But when you discover a prospect that clearly has the elements of what Leafs goaltending consultant Francois Allaire is known for masterfully molding, it’s hardly considered a risk to stockpile more puck-stopping talent. And at 190th overall, the Elmhurst, Illinois native is out to prove that where there’s Sparks, there’s also a fire.
Always considered a “big goalie” at around 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Sparks was originally plucked by Guelph in the eighth round of the 2009 OHL Priority Draft. The following season, Garret led the Chicago Mission to the the U.S. Under-18 National Championships. When all was said and done, he had posted a 19-7-0-3 record, a 1.98 goals against average and a .907 save percentage.
As a rookie for Guelph, a team that elected to carry three goalies with Brandon Foote and Matej Machovsky, Sparks played in 19 games and went 8-6-1 with a 3.64 goals against average and .890 save percentage. His finest stretch of the stretch came in February, when he rattled off a 4-1-0 record, a 3.21 goals against average and .901 save percentage in just 10 days.
Maybe his finest moment of the season, however, was his first-ever win. Wearing stiff, brand new pads, Garret prepared as the backup just like any other game. But when Foote went down with a pre-game injury in warm-ups, Sparks was thrust into the starter role for the game. Although it was just his third appearance as an OHL goaltender, Sparks played like it was his third season.
Butting heads with fellow American Jack Campbell and the potent Windsor Spitfires team, Sparks stopped nine shots in the first period, 13 in the second and 16 more in the third - 38 of 41 overall - to earn his first victory (5-3) in the OHL.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Especially considering he had to switch out of a brand new pair of pads after warmups, and back into his old pair right before the game.
So as you can see, over the course of only 19 games, Sparks earned just enough pins of meaningful merit as an OHL rookie to catch the collective eye of Toronto’s scouting staff. And considering he’s a self-proclaimed “blocking style” goalie that likes to make explosive but calculated and controlled movements, you might even say Sparks and Allaire could quickly become a perfect match.
Of course time will tell in regards to Sparks’ upside in a Leafs uniform, but as you will see from our interview below, he certainly fits the mold of not only Allaire’s coaching style, but Brian Burke’s mission of drafting young men of character.
TGG: Listed at 6-foot-2 and just over 200 pounds, you have a very solid frame. Can you explain how you use that size to your advantage?
GS: “I have always played a game centered on having good angles and filling net. I work to put my body in the best position possible and have learned to use my reactions secondary. I work to take every straight-on shot in the chest or off the pads, moving into it and absorbing or controlling it from there. Having the size frame I do really makes that process a lot easier. The other area that I see my size helps is [with] in-tight and lateral plays. My goalie coach Mike Parson has really helped me a lot with patience and explosion, teaching me to be patient enough to let the puck hit me, yet reacting explosive enough to get there in perfect position. Since coming to the OHL, I find myself on my stomach and butt far less, and reacting quicker and more in control to in-tight and lateral plays.”
TGG: How would you describe your style of play, and are there any NHL goalies out there that you try to emulate or model your game after?
GS: “My style of play is very positional combined with athletic movements. I rely on my body, chest and such to stop shots, but I feel I move well with the play and in an athletic manner. I am a blocking goalie with the ability to make an explosive save cross-crease or a desperation rebound save. I like Ryan Miller as a goalie, as I see him as another good combination of a blocking goalie with extreme athleticism, as well as an ability to focus that is second to none.”
TGG: Your first win this past season was a terrific 38-save effort after a last-minute start due to an injury to Brandon Foote. What did you learn from that experience?
GS: “To always be ready! I had actually taken warmups in my brand new pads and elected to switch back to my old ones for the game. It was a hectic and nerve-racking 15 minutes until I stepped on the ice, but I found myself fortunate to be thrust into the position. I had only played one other game up until that point and I just wanted to play well enough to get my team the win.”
TGG: In what areas of your game do you feel like you most improved in during the season? What areas are you hoping to improve in this summer?
GS: “The areas I’ve improved most in are body control and explosion, and I think those are the most important things to develop as a goalie at the next level after seeing this year. The ability to get somewhere in a good amount of time and be under control makes every shot feel like a first shot. You never have to worry about how you’re going to make the save, you’re already there! Being in control of your movements is a huge part of my game and something I’m going to continue to improve upon.”
TGG: Going off the current roster on Guelph’s website, how proud are you to be the only US-born player on your team?
GS: “Last season I [played with] Sam Lofquist from Wisconsin, but this year I’m alone. Having Sam was fun last year because we had our own U.S. friendship going on, but being the only American this year won’t be that big of a change. Being the only American, you assume a little more responsibility to represent your country positively. In the end we’re all a team though, and where you’re from is secondary to where you want to go.”
TGG: I ask every goalie this same question – what does mental toughness mean to you, and how do you mentally prepare for a game?
GS: “Mental toughness, in my mind, has little to do with not making mistakes, and a lot more to do with making saves. Mental toughness is the ability to keep your composure when seemingly nothing is going the way it should, and allowing your team to lean on you when they need to. The goalies with the best mental toughness win the one-goal games, even if the final score is 6-5. My pre-game preparation is very simple. I like to have a small pre game meal and then an hour nap, which is more of just laying calmly than actually sleeping. Then I show up to the rink and have some fun. You may consider this goaltending blasphemy, but there’s no point in being uptight about a game that is over two hours away. I prepare equipment, hang out with my teammates, and shoot around and stick handle. From there I do team stretch and individual stretching. After our on ice warm-up I do my own thing before getting on the ice. Most of my mental preparation is done during the anthem, on the ice, in the net. This is when being mentally strong finally starts to count.”
TGG: How does it feel to have all of your hard work pay off by being drafted, and what would you like to say to all the Leafs fans out there?
GS: “Not expecting to be drafted makes being drafted that much more fun. When I came home for Christmas break, I had played in a total of 4 OHL games. I was only scheduled to play in 1 of those 4 games. Getting drafted was the last thing I ever expected at that point in time. However, through hard work, and the support of our coaching staff, namely Mike Parson, I got the opportunities I had worked all season for and left enough of an impression to be selected by the Leafs in the draft. I went into the draft with the mindset that it didn’t matter who took me, as long as I was taken. Upon being selected by Toronto, I realized how fortunate I was. The fans are absolutely incredible, as I have seen through Twitter already. Being selected by a team rich in history, with deep rivalries and endless resources is a really big deal. Being drafted is an accomplishment, but I feel the real accomplishment is being drafted by such a respected organization.”
The Goalie Guild thanks Garret for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. He just turned 18 years old on Wednesday (6-28), so be sure to reach out to him on Twitter @GSparks40 and wish him a happy birthday!