Back in June, Garret Sparks suggested to his buddy Mike Condon that perhaps he’d journey out to St. John’s at some point the next season and visit Condon as he tended goal for the farm club of the Montreal Canadiens in Newfoundland.
“He said, ‘I won’t be in St. John’s,’” recalls Sparks. “‘I’m going to make the Montreal Canadiens.’”
“And I was like, ‘Well, prove it. And he did.’”
Condon, needless to say, has turned into one of the inspirational stories of this young NHL season, first beating out veteran Dustin Tokarski for the backup job behind league MVP Carey Price, and then holding the fort for the Habs when Price went down with an injury this fall.
Condon called himself a “fat, out-of-shape, Olympic-lifting goalie coming out of college with an NHL contract and no idea how to prepare for it,” but trained with an MMA fighter in Cape Cod last summer and, at the age of 25, cracked the NHL.
His arrival came a year after Scott Darling wrote a similar story for himself with the Chicago Blackhawks, at one point starting in the playoffs for the eventual champs just three years after overcoming a drinking problem and being at the bottom of the hockey food chain playing in the low minors with a team in Mississippi.
“He’s been able to come back from the depths of pro hockey,” says Sparks. “From knowing him, you don’t ever want to do what Scott had to do. It’s an amazing story. He told me those are the things you don’t want to do to yourself. I knew it was a make-it-or-break-it time of my life. He was one of the people I had in the back of my mind. If Scott can do it, you can do it.
“He’s definitely one of my biggest inspirations.”
Sparks, just 22, befriended Condon and Darling as part of a Facebook-based, online goalie community called GGSU, linking 18,000 goalies around the world. Sparks runs summer camps in Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto – he calls himself “Dictator, Legends Camp Owner” on the website – and has worked with both goaltenders.
He hasn’t had quite the battle that Condon and Darling had. But he did fall to the East Coast Hockey League last season after being the backup with the AHL Toronto Marlies the year before, and found himself fat, out-of-shape and battling persistent groin injuries.
Now, that’s all changed. After giving up sweets and junk food in the off-season, Sparks dropped 25 pounds and last week was named AHL player-of-the-week.
If there’s another Darling or Condon in the offing, it might be this youngster.
“I have to give the Leafs all the credit in the world for not giving up on an ignorant kid,” he says.
The Leafs had drafted Sparks 190th overall in 2011, and watched him graduate from the Chicago Mission program to the OHL Guelph Storm. He was good, but he just didn’t work at it.
“I was always a kid who played hockey because I liked it, and I just kind of rode that up to this level,” he says. “As far as the whole working out, polished professional thing, that wasn’t on my radar for the first 16, 17 years of my life. Until I got to junior, it wasn’t anything I ever thought about.
“In Guelph I was playing 60 games a year in that shape. I didn’t think I had any reason to change. I was told from day one with the Leafs about that, but I’m stubborn in that I like to do things my own way, and eventually I learned.”
Sparks is 6-foot-2 with long sideburns and a laid back, almost surfer-like vibe. But clearly, something has clicked, and there’s a quiet level of excitement about him in an organization that has struggled to find consistency and stability in the net since Ed Belfour left town.
Reimer has taken over the No. 1 job, and the Leafs are suddenly respectable 3-1-2 in their last six games while Bernier recovers from injury. Bibeau, who rocketed into prominence playing for Val d’Or at the Memorial Cup two years ago, has been up with the Leafs as a backup, giving Sparks the room to take over the Marlies’ crease and run with the opportunity.
“Antoine’s up there right now, and we’re each other’s biggest assets in the sense that we’ll push each other until the end of time to get better, he says. “Two goalies the same age, with the same skill level, and we’re just going to keep battling each other. For eternity, it feels like.
“So for me, if there was ever a time to step on the gas and work on my game, this is the year to do it. I only get in trouble when I doubt myself. And I don’t doubt that one day I’ll be able to put it all together.”