Last night was a spectacular NHL debut for Garret Sparks. With James Reimer injured in the middle of what may be his career year, and Jonathan Bernier benched for poor performance, Sparks, who only months ago was playing in Orlando with the Solar Bears, got the call up and go ahead for his NHL debut.
His performance was amazing; stopping 24 shots on goal and earning a shutout against the high octane Edmonton Oilers.
It was an incredible moment for Sparks, who struggled through the minor leagues for several years. Indeed, when informed he was the first ever Leafs goalie to earn a shutout in his NHL debut he was visibly overcome with emotion.
While most celebrated Sparks' historic shutout, some Leafs fans raised an eyebrow.
The Leafs have a VERY long history, most of it very well documented on NHL official game sheets. However as you go back in time it becomes harder and harder for an average fan to find and access those records.
NHL.com has complete game records available back through 2003. Earlier this year the league announced a project to digitize all game sheets back through to 1917. It's a project that will be complete for the league's centennial celebrations in 2017.
However that doesn't help us today. Instead what we have are often fuzzy memories from fans of historic games.
Immediately after the declaration was made that Sparks shutout was historic for being the first in an NHL debut by a Leafs goaltender, comments popped up on the internet disputing this fact. Most were easily debunked, but one particular comment on a CBC Sports post caught my eye. He insisted Mike Palmateer had in fact achieved a shutout in his NHL debut in 1976, and he knew this because he was there to see it live.
So was Mike Palmateer really the first Leaf with a shutout in his NHL debut?
I immediately sided with the Leafs on this one. While I may mock them for incompetence in many other areas, these kind of niche 'first ever' stats are indeed tracked and researched by many people. It would be highly embarrassing if they didn't fact check this first.
All that being said, a check of the game records shows that on November 17, 1976 Mike Palmateer did indeed shutout the Canadiens 1-0 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
But was that game also his NHL debut?
HockeyDB can easily confirm 1976-77 was Palmateer's first season. He played in 50 of the 80 games that year, earning 2 points, only 3 less than his defence team mate Randy Carlyle.
The NHL season started earlier in 1976. The Leafs first game was October 5th. The game in question vs. the Canadiens was their 18th game of the season, notably only a few days after a game against the Cleveland Barons where only 3,488 people attended!
Right away this casts doubt that could be his debut. If he played 50 games in an 80 game season, and this was the 18th, it would mean he made almost all remaining starts in the season. I finally found a definitive answer through a story on the Leafs website which confirms Palmateer's "first NHL win" was on October 28 in Detroit. That may not have been his first game in 1976, only his first win, but it was certainly before his alleged "NHL debut" on November 17.
Congratulations Mr. Sparks! You really are the first
The fog of time may have confused some memories here and I suspect November 17, 1976 was actually Palmateer's NHL debut at Maple Leaf Gardens. Still, it was a fun to look back at one of the Leafs' all-time greats, and it reinforces the achievement of Garret Sparks.
Sparks pictured in front of one of those pictures Leiweke wanted to remove because it wouldn't inspire the players to greatness.
Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 1, 2015