Garret Sparks chasing ‘better Cup’ in Maple Leafs’ tough backup race

Auston Matthews opened the scoring and Tyler Ennis scored a pair to get the Maple Leafs a 4-1 win over the Senators.

TORONTO – Garret Sparks did something completely different this summer.

“I allowed myself to relax,” says Sparks, one of three qualified goaltenders vying for the job of Toronto Maple Leafs backup goaltender. “I stepped away from the game. I got out of the net. I went home, enjoyed my family. I relaxed. I wasn’t running around the country trying to run goalie camps and trying to make other people better.”

Since the Maple Leafs took a flyer on the lanky goaltender who loves winning and despises clichés in the seventh round seven years ago, Sparks had turned dream-chasing into a restless 365-day pursuit. When he wasn’t jumping in front of rubber himself, he’d been active in the goalie community, both through online dialogue and IRL instruction, long after the snow melted.

Perhaps more than he himself realized, Sparks would arrive at training camp tired and anxious before the puck even dropped.

So often we extoll the lessons developing players learn from losing. Funny, then, that winning everything but a call-up in 2017-18 — the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goalie; the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award (with pal Calvin Pickard) for posting the tiniest GAA; and the Calder Cup, Toronto’s first pro hockey championship in 51 years — changed Sparks’ point of view.

In the days leading up to the Marlies’ Game 7 elation, we spoke at length with Sparks about his determination to graduate to the next level.

“I expect to be in the NHL next year. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be. And if I’m not… I don’t know,” he said in late May. “I don’t see myself taking any time off this summer. I’m going to hit the ground running right when this is over. Hopefully with a win, but no matter what.”

Soaked in champagne, the desire remained but the plan changed.

Sparks ditched the mask and pads so he could patrol left wing for Lemonhead HC, the suburban Chicago men’s league squad he led in scoring (24 points over 10 games) and led to another, less-publicized championship. “When I skate out in the summer, I just try to blow it through goalies,” he confesses.

He brought the Calder home to Elmhurst, Ill., to rejoice with friends and family, but then opened up his doors to anyone and everyone who wished to pop by.

“We got a couple local young goalies out there who hadn’t seen hardware like that before,” Sparks says. “You work all season to win. And when you win, you should enjoy it.

“I knew there was going to be a competition for spots, and the best thing you can do is put yourself in the best mind frame you can. To do that, you have to enjoy your life and enjoy where you’re at.”

Where Sparks, 25, is at now is a crossroads, a three-way intersection in the shadow of undisputed Leafs starter Frederik Andersen, he who hogs the net for 66 games in each of his Toronto campaigns.

Who will back up Andersen is one of the most intriguing story lines of a training camp for the fringes.

Coming off the greatest season of his life, 35-year-old Curtis McElhinney (11-5-1, .934 save percentage) is an incumbent who’s quietly done everything asked of him and the favourite if you believe coach Mike Babcock’s “tie goes to the veteran” rule is chiselled in stone and applies to the blue paint.

Sparks and Pickard — once a starter for Colorado and Team Canada — and are roughly a decade younger and still have a No. 1’s ambition. McElhinney won’t ruffle feathers.

“We’re all in similar situations, but there is only one spot,” McElhinney has acknowledged to reporters. “My job is essentially on the line every year, and we’ve got two, three guys capable of doing that right now.”

All three candidates looked just fine and victorious in their pre-season debuts this week. All three are budget-friendly, with McElhinney the highest-paid at $850,000. All three find themselves on expiring one-way deals and would make for easy wire gambles for an opposing GM worried about his net depth.

Make Kyle Dubas an offer.

“You’ve got four goalies on one-way contracts, so it’s the reality of the situation,” Sparks says. “Two guys are going to have to clear through waivers — or there’s going to be movement.”

We have a theory, and it’s not fair to McElhinney: Sparks will get his shot in October not solely because he deserved one but also because, based on his .898 showing in the Boston series, Andersen has reached a point in his stable Leafs life where he needs to be pushed and needs more time off.

“It’s great to have that plan [of playing Andersen less], but what if the schedule and the points don’t add up the way you want?” Babcock counters. “Then what do you do? It’s great to say that, but we’ll see what happens.”

As fiercely as Sparks wants to make the bigs, he didn’t pour in all this work to get scooped on waivers and make it in another city.

“I’ve been in Toronto seven years now, and I don’t want to leave. It’s a non-contest at this point,” he says. “Look at this team right now. I want to be a part of this. I’ve been a part of it since 2011. I’m going to work every day to work to ensure I can continue to be a part of it.”

So he can enjoy another relaxing summer like the one that he reenergized him for the career test he’s engaged in now.

Sparks has a crowd-pleasing line he drags out for anyone asking him to rate that Calder Cup rager in Elmhurst.

“Seven out of 10,” he says. “It was pretty good, but it wasn’t that great. There’s definitely a hunger for more.

“I want a better Cup.”

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