Maple Leafs’ Garret Sparks calls for better chest protectors

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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Garret Sparks makes a save. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – Garret Sparks peels off his new, formfitting chest protector after Tuesday’s practice and, bare from the waist up, points to tender spot on his upper arm, just below his right shoulder, where he’d been pinged by a high shot from one of his teammates.

"Just because I don’t bruise doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. I’m not a hemophiliac," the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender says.

"It’s not like goalies have anything to gain by bellyaching about the rules, because that’s not going to get anything changed. Guys are getting legitimately bruised, which I experienced firsthand."

As ESPN reported Friday, Dallas’s Ben Bishop, Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky and Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott are among the veteran members of the goaltending fraternity to speak out about the visible marks zipped pucks are leaving on the NHL’s goaltenders under the mandatory installation of trimmed-down chest pieces.

Sparks says his own bruises have faded because he was compelled to switch brands and find a piece of protection that works better for him, but even the new Brian’s unit he’s breaking in has forced him to be more hesitant in his approach, something he’s noticed around creases league-wide.

“It was a more complicated piece of equipment than when we introduced the new pants or pads," NHL vice president of hockey operations Kay Whitmore, a long-serving goaltender now in charge of these equipment tweaks, told The Canadian Press. "We can ask companies to make changes, but things didn’t move very fast until we created a standard, gave them specifics and asked them to build to it.

“I don’t want to see guys go on the ice fearful of getting hit with pucks, because that’s what they do for a living.”

Goals, on average, are up to 3.1 per team per game, the highest rate of scoring since 1995-96. Granted, we’re only about a 10th of our way into the season, and scoring rates tend to dip into deep winter.

Sparks believes the new padding regulations, though hastily implemented, are achieving their desired effect, but doing so at the expense of goalie safety. For instance, his old chest model featured two shoulder caps; the slimmer ones have just one, leaving arms more vulnerable and causing netminders to try to catch pucks they’d otherwise just let hit their shoulder.

It’s handcuffing.

"Watch the games," Sparks says. "See how many guys are going olé."

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In conversation with Sportsnet.ca on Tuesday, Sparks spoke candidly about an equipment shift he doesn’t want to see changed, why he originally told reporters he was indifferent to the new getup, and the backlash he felt from other corners of the NHL.

SPORTSNET.CA: So, you’ve been bruised too?
GARRET SPARKS: I was with my first unit—to the point where you don’t even want to track down on pucks. You don’t even want to attack pucks. You’re just trying to make saves and not wear the brunt of it.

Is that in games or in practice?
Whatever you do in practice affects you in a game. If you can’t track down on pucks in practice, how are you expected to be able to do it in a game? It’s like if you took defencemen’s shin pads and took an inch off of them and said, ‘OK, go block shots.’ That’d probably increase scoring. But you’re putting guys’ legs on the line. But nobody thinks that way about a goalie because it’s your job to get hit by pucks.

Do you and Frederik Andersen talk about this?
No.

Do guys around the league discuss it?
I’ve had guys ask me what I’m wearing and how I feel about it and stuff like that. You see guys experimenting with gear brands they’d normally never consider, just because they’re looking for protection from somewhere else. Because their sponsored brand or preferred brand isn’t adequately protecting them. There’s a level of discomfort with that, as guys are running around between brands trying different things. They’re trying to find a solution to a padding problem, not a functioning movement problem. Early in the season I made comments like, ‘It’s not that bad. It’s not a big deal,’ and I know guys around the league weren’t even happy hearing that. They were like, ‘This guy’s a sellout.’

Did they tell you that directly?
No. [I found out] second-hand from other goalies. The comments you make obviously have implications even if you don’t intend them to, but when they make rule changes at the beginning of the summer and manufacturers aren’t fully prepared for it and the season starts and units haven’t been made for guys, and guys are wearing demo gear for two or three months, that’s not like a calculated, prepared and effective change. The guys who end up eating the brunt of it are the goalies. It’s not the fans, not the players, not the coaches, not the GMs. It’s the goalies.

Now, you said "first unit." So, you’ve already made a switch?
I switched to Brian’s, which is the manufacturer of my pads. I had a Bauer I’d worn for three years and was really comfortable in, and Bauer’s demo unit… I’d equate it to a foamboard model of a house. You can’t live in the foam model; you can only look at it. I was playing in that for three months.

And you had bruises all over.
Yeah, and I had pieces of padding falling out. Stuff that wasn’t working the way it should. It wasn’t functioning the right way. At the end of the day, that makes it really hard to practice. It makes it hard to make a team. It makes it hard to play a game in pre-season when your career — your life — is on the line, just so they can look for two extra goals a year, three extra goals a year on a guy.

So that concern was in your head during that pre-season loss to Montreal?
It wasn’t in my head. It was on my body. That’s the thing. That’s why I made comments like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t bother me.’ What am I going to do? Go to the media and say, ‘I can’t even look at puck straight on in practice without fear’? I don’t want to look like a coward. That’s the common conversation. It goes back to, ‘Well, Glenn Hall never wore a mask and played 502 games in a row.’ I know he did. That’s incredible. It’s amazing.

The shots were a little softer back then.
Yeah, and goaltending has come so far from that. Guys have worked so hard, guys have become so scientific about their game, so thought-driven, so calculated, because they don’t want to be the guy who gets his brains beat out for a living. You want to be an artist. You want to be someone who’s proficient as his position, who’s put in hours and hours of time to perfect the way they do things. We’re not here to get hit with pucks; we’re here to make saves.

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Are enough goalies speaking out about the padding now that it could result in change?
I don’t want to see a change.

Really?
No. I just want them to continue to improve the units that they’re saying are legal so guys don’t get hurt. Don’t go back to the old sizing. Just make this one better. If you had to have it, keep it—but make it better.

Ben Bishop is considering using the old, more padded stuff in practice. Would you do that?
That’s another issue, because you move completely different in the two units. It’s just too different to go back and forth. I tried it. I made a save today off this part of my arm [points below right shoulder]. I get hit there last year, I never feel a thing. This year, if I didn’t have this piece, it hits me right in the arm and I wouldn’t be able to use my shoulder for a day. What’s the point of that? It still didn’t go in. It still was a save. Only this year I had to wear it.

To your knowledge, are the manufacturers working hard on improving the pads?
Not an area of concern. I’ve got one that I feel more adequately protected in now, and I’m rolling with that. It’s a great chest protector. It conforms to the rules. I hope everybody else in the league finds a solution for what they need.

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