"I've waited all summer to play a hockey game," begins Garret Sparks, who exudes all the excitement and confidence you would hope for in an aspiring NHL goaltender. Perhaps most importantly, Sparks is now also showing the maturity and dedication to match.
"I'm 22 years old now, and I'm trying to ... solidify myself as somebody who has polished themselves professionally and is doing all the right things in the off-season, and is making the changes that, you know, maybe an 18 year-old kid doesn't get, but a 22 year-old should ... I lost about 20 pounds this off season ... just been gearing up for the season since June.
"Stuff like this [the rookie tournament] has been on my calendar all summer," he continues. "To get a chance to play tonight is a very exciting opportunity." This is exactly what the Leafs and their fans want to hear, especially since the team did not draft any other goalies this summer.
Here at PPP, our Top 25 Under 25 did not include Sparks, but judging by his recovery from injury and newfound dedication, we may see him climb the ranks of Leafs' prospects once again.
"I was here at this tournament last year and I put together a good game, and then the next day at practice I ended up pulling my groin, and just started a really tumultuous first half of my season. ... There is a time where I couldn't play, and it was the first time in my life my body had failed me. I wasn't able to play because I wasn't healthy. It was a terrible feeling and I never want to go back there again. I never want to have to watch from the stands for weeks on end and just want to be in the net. I knew this summer I had to make some changes and continue all the good things I was doing [in] the second half of the season in Orlando. So to come back here be at the same place where all that happened last year and know that I'm that much more prepared this year is a good feeling."
Although he wound up playing in Orlando instead of Toronto, Sparks appreciated the situation for what is was, and used it to get better. "My only regret from last year is not coming into camp in the shape that I needed to to stay healthy, and I lost a lot of valuable playing time. You have three years to make an impact on an entry level contract, and I lost a full half a year to that, so that's something I don't want to to again. ... When I was down in Orlando though, I got to play every game and I got to be a leader on that team. ... We had a great group of guys down there and it was exactly what I needed at that stage of my career, to take over a team and just play a lot of minutes and face a lot of shots. I have no regrets about going down there, it was the best thing for me at the time."
With Christopher Gibson and Antoine Bibeau competing for the same top job with the Marlies, Sparks knows that his margin for error is slim. "We have three goalies competing for two spots and all three guys deserve those two spots. ... It's not like there is an odd man out, it's three good goalies competing day in, day out, for the rest of the season to see who is going to start each night. ... There's not a lot of other goalies at our age who are competing against two other kids their age for spots, so it's a unique situation. ... I welcome the challenge."
On a lighter note, as Sparks is a native of Elmhurst, Illinois, Paul Hendrick asked in the scrum how excited Sparks was about the strong fall season of the Chicago Cubs, who are currently in a wild card position in the MLB.
"I'm a Sox fan," he says without a hint of a smile. He immediately drops his head and walks away from the microphone.
As he leaves, a grin breaks out across his face and the room erupts in laughter. Later, Hendrick says he wishes he could have given Sparks his mic, just so he could have dropped it before leaving.