Damien Cox, Sportsnet
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 pummeled 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.
That was for everyone who started me on their fantasy team tonight 😉
— Garret Sparks (@GSparks40) December 1, 2015
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 Sportsnet.ca a few weeks ago, “I have to give the Leafs all the credit in the world for not giving up on an ignorant kid.”
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