TORONTO – As the crowd roared to cheer each member of the Toronto Marlies when he lifted the Calder Cup over his head, Garret Sparks already had grander visions dancing in his head.
“It’s the first hockey championship in 50 years – over 50 years,” said the team’s starting goaltender. “And this core group is gonna do it again – at another level.”
At long last, the city of Toronto finally has another hockey title from a men’s professional team.
For the first time since the Toronto Maple Leafs last earned the Stanley Cup more than a half century ago, it was their little brother who returned the city to the winner’s circle.
The Toronto Marlies – the AHL club of the Maple Leafs – won the Calder Cup on Thursday in front of a raucous home crowd, beating the Texas Stars 6-1 in Game 7.
That the Marlies took the first and last games of the series allowed them to grab their first title in franchise history. It was the first by a Leafs’ affiliate since 1982.
For those like Sparks – players with Leafs experience and with aspirations of playing for them next year – it was tough not to think this win will permeate upwards.
“It’s just the start,” said defenceman Travis Dermott, who finished the season in the NHL. “As far as winning something again here – winning something up top – that’s the goal. It’s right there.
“Hopefully, this little taste kinda gets us kicked into gear and a little boost to back us up. It’s going to be an exciting time for his city.”
There was no Stanley Cup awarded on Thursday, but the Calder Cup was more than enough to get the capacity crowd whipped into a frenzy.
The fans were loud all game, hollering at goals, chanting in support of Sparks, and berating referees Pierre Lambert and Chris Schlenker for what they felt were a few unjust calls. The officials were booed off the ice.
But the loudest ovation was masked by fireworks when captain Ben Smith hoisted the Calder Cup. A close runner-up in the loudness scale, however, was reserved for Marlies GM Kyle Dubas — a sign of what he’s expected to deliver in his new, identical role with the big club.
Dubas was overjoyed when he received the trophy from coach Sheldon Keefe and pumped it up and down several times after hosting it in the air.
“You can tell by the jubilation and the excitement here in the building,” said alternate captain Colin Greening when asked what this means to the city.
“Thousands of people came here. Every time someone hoists that Cup, there’s a scream and cry.”
Despite the lopsided score, the winner-take-all game was closer than it should have been for most of the night.
The Marlies were decisively the better team and outshot the Stars 46-30, but they needed four third-period goals to clinch the outcome.
They had to managed without Dermott, who decided he couldn’t play after sustaining what he said was a shoulder injury in Game 5.
Dermott returned to the lineup for Game 6, but felt he was in too much pain to dress again. Andrew Nielsen once again took his place.
“It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever made in hockey so far,” he said.
“I put all my trust in their hands, sitting out this game, praying that I wasn’t going to regret it. They did such an amazing job.”
The Marlies had complete control of the game from the moment they took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission.
It was a carbon copy performance of the first period of Game 6, when they dominated shots on goal and possession, except this time they weren’t held off the scoresheet.
Andreas Johnsson and Mason Marchment scored their first of two goals in the contest and the Marlies were off and running from there.
“Scoring those two goals in the first was nice,” Smith said. “We were able to play with a lead.”
The Stars had the better chances in the second, but Sparks was the difference.
Sparks was far from his best in Game 6, allowing four goals on 17 shots before getting replaced by Calvin Pickard. But he said afterwards he was “extremely confident” he’d bounce back in the winner-take-all contest two nights later.
The AHL’s top goaltender backed up his words.
“I was gonna play a full 60 minutes regardless of what happened tonight,” Sparks said.
Sparks made an amazing save on defenceman Dillon Heatherington midway through the period. He then reached back to rob Matt Mangene after the fellow blueliner tried to jam in a loose puck while waiting beside the Marlies net.
The play required a lengthy review, but it was deemed Sparks did just enough to keep the puck out.
“I had a responsibility to step up and I thought I did that,” he said.
The only goal to beat Sparks came in the third on another scramble play that took minutes to confirm. Austin Fyten got credit for it.
Carl Grundstrom and Smith – along with Johnsson and Marchment – countered over the final 20 minutes.
The two goals and assist from Johnsson gave him a four-point edge for the AHL playoff scoring title over Stars captain Curtis McKenzie.
Johnsson, another late-season Leaf, earned 24 points in 16 games and was awarded with the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most outstanding player of the playoffs.
“Johnny, all playoffs, was amazing,” Dermott said. “You watch him and you don’t think there’s any way he’s going to play another game here in this league. He’s a guy I hope will be my teammate for a long time.”
It was six years ago that the Marlies were last in the Calder Cup Finals. They were quickly swept aside by the Norfolk Admirals.
They weren’t going to be stopped this time.
Thanks to them, Toronto’s 51-year pro hockey championship drought is over.
And now it remains to be seen what’s next for franchise – that is, the big club.
“It’s an organizational win,” Keefe said. “What it’s going to translate to, we don’t know.
“But the fact is we can see there’s some special players here that made a difference for us. The experience that some of the younger guys gained from this run, obviously you hope pays dividends.”