Sparks’ NHL debut marked by history, tears and perfection

Garret Sparks spoke after his debut win, saying his team played great in front of him and he couldn’t have scripted the game any better.

Unexpected and unscripted. It happened just that way. The best way.

Young goalie, chubby and seemingly exiled to the low minors less than a year ago, gets a chance out of the blue to start an NHL game for a very famous team fallen upon hard times. Few imagine this as a solution to anything.

Goalie’s parents sit in the stands watching. Goalie gets a shutout. Makes history.

Goalie cries when interviewed.

Rocky Balboa did something along those lines after being pummelled by Apollo Creed the first time, and I seem to remember Todd Gill weeping a bit after the Toronto Maple Leafs upset the Detroit Red Wings in the 1993 playoffs.

But this was just simple and perfect — certainly too perfect for Toronto’s rarely-anywhere-near-perfect NHL franchise.

On Monday night at the Air Canada Centre, 22-year-old Garret Sparks of Elmhurst, Illinois, the first American to start in goal for the Leafs since Scott Clemmensen, also became the first Leafs goalie to register a whitewash in his NHL debut since… since… nobody.

“They’ve been playing hockey for a long time around here,” said Sparks afterwards. “So that’s kinda cool.”

Kinda. By that point, Sparks was relatively composed after letting the tears flow in his post-game interview. He was as endearingly emotional as a hockey player can get on Nov. 30 of a six-month season that ends somewhere far down the road, undoubtedly remembering being an Orlando Solar Bear in the East Coast Hockey League with almost zero chance of ever being a Leaf not very long ago.

“I’m a little lost right now, sorry,” he said as he searched for answers to questions nobody imagined asking him just last week.

It wasn’t the greatest goaltending performance of all time because it didn’t have to be. The Edmonton Oilers, despite all those high draft picks, remain just an awful hockey team that probably already has “Matthews” on a jersey for the draft in seven months. They only mustered 24 drives on Sparks in dropping a 3-0 decision to the Leafs.

Two other shots hit iron in the second period and stayed out, but there were some timely saves as well. Like the first one off Jujhar Khaira in tight at 2:17 of the first. Leaf goalies often have trouble with that first one.

Head coach Mike Babcock called Sparks’ effort “solid,” but wouldn’t guarantee him the next start.

“Well, I assume he starts on Wednesday in Winnipeg unless [James Reimer] is ready to go,” said Babock.

And if Reimer’s ready?

“Well, [Reimer is] from Winnipeg, so he’s starting,” said the coach.

So history and tears and perfection only get you so far with these Leafs, it would seem, and chances are that’ll be okay with Sparks. Reimer, sitting this one out with an injury, dropped by in civilian garb to give Sparks a post-game hug — an embrace between two goalies familiar with being Leafs draft picks who no one ever imagined would actually tend goal for the big club.

Reimer was a fourth rounder. Sparks was an even longer shot, a seventh round selection in 2011, a big kid from the Guelph Storm who loved to play but didn’t have a clue how to be a professional.

Things were okay at first, and he was obviously big and talented, but then it all started going backwards. He went from being a backup in the AHL to out-of-shape and injured in the ECHL.

As he told a few weeks ago, “I have to give the Leafs all the credit in the world for not giving up on an ignorant kid.”

Last summer, he gave up chips and candy, dropped 25 pounds and came to Toronto’s camp determined to be the next Scott Darling, and then when the season began, to become the next Mike Condon, who’d beaten out Dustin Tokarski in Montreal.

Both netminders are buddies of his, and inspirations, and fellow members of a Facebook-fueled website for goalies with 18,000 members that seemed destined to be the most important hockey accomplishment of Sparks’ life until he happened upon this neat little rendezvous with history.

Other goalies have pulled off this trick. Quite a few, actually. Troy Grosenick did it with the San Jose Sharks in 2014, as did John Gibson with the Anaheim Ducks. Al Montoya pitched a shutout for Phoenix in his NHL debut back in ’09. And so on goes the list, but without a single Leafs name. Well, Daren Puppa was a Leaf, but his shutout in his ’85 debut came as a Sabre.

Generally speaking, it’s damn hard to make any history as a Leaf. Despite all the bad that’s happened since 1967, there’s a lot of players who came before, a lot of decades to cover all the bases, yet this achievement was just sitting there undone by a Toronto goalie until Sparks did it.

In terms of the unexpected, you might even argue the fact that Leo Komarov now has 10 goals – more than 699 other NHLers this season – outranks this shutout by Sparks. But Komarov didn’t cry – he barely muttered – and he’s been praised over and over by Babcock this season, and he’s a grizzled vet who is suddenly having a career season and that happens.

For Sparks, well, if Reimer is ready Wednesday, who knows when we’ll see him again. His next start might be back with Sheldon Keefe’s AHL Marlies if Jonathan Bernier can get himself unscrambled. The Leafs have been excited about Sparks’ possibilities for a couple of months now since he got all trimmed down and focussed, but they’re so determined to go slow with their prospects they won’t hesitate to send him back to the AHL.

Given he might not have been termed a true “prospect” as recently as last winter, this would still be a good thing.

But that’s the big picture. Monday night, the tight shot was on the 6-foot-3 Sparks, and his tears, and his words when asked about his parents, and their sacrifices to get him up and playing during his formative years blocking pucks in Chicago.

“I’ll never be able to repay them for what they did no matter how much I make from this game,” he said, getting choked up a little. Again.

He got to skate back out on the ice as the first star and give a goalie stick to a fan, and all in all, it was just about how Scott Young would have written it if he were still around to pen “Scrubs on (Goalie) Skates.”

Ignorant no more, Garret Sparks made history on Monday night, then drank it all in afterwards, like a man who knew how hard it was to get here and really wanted to feel every part of the moment.

Just two weeks ago, he said with confidence that he knew he was going to get his chance. Well, he got his chance, and he made history.

It’s all enough to make a grown goalie cry.

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