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Leafs looking for a spark with latest debut

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs were aiming to get back on the winning track Monday against the visiting Edmonton Oilers – and the first NHL game for rookie Leafs goaltender Garret Sparks was providing an extra spark for the players in Toronto’s room.

“I know all the boys are fired up for him,” Leafs winger Shawn Matthias said of Sparks, who’ll be in net when the Leafs take on the Oilers at Air Canada Centre. “Whenever a guy’s playing his first NHL game – forward, defense, goalie, it doesn’t matter – you’re always happy for him, you’re always excited. It definitely puts some excitement in your game, and some extra life. We’re all pulling for him and we’re all going to play hard in front of him.”

To say the game is thrilling for the 22-year-old Sparks – who compiled a sterling 8-2-1-0 mark and league-best .938 save percentage for the American League's Marlies this season before getting called up to the NHL roster late last week – is an understatement in the extreme.

The Elmhurst, Ill., native, selected by the Leafs in the seventh round (190th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft, has had his share of ups and downs as a professional and spent much of last season with Orlando of the ECHL. Sparks has been resilient in his belief in himself and was named the AHL player of the week in early November before getting recalled in the wake of a lower-body injury to Leafs starter James Reimer.

Now, he gets what he’s dreamed about all his life. And there’s one word that best describes how he’s feeling in the hours before the puck drops on the start of his NHL career.

“Excitement,” Sparks said. “I’ve been playing hockey for a long time, and this is the coolest thing that’s come of it yet, so I’m very excited. I’m just trying to stay composed and do the things that got me here.”

Sparks’ parents will be attending Monday’s game in addition to his billets from his days as a member of the Ontario League’s Guelph Storm, with whom he spent three seasons. They’ll undoubtedly enjoy the achievement, as will Leafs centre Byron Froese who, like Sparks, earned his chance with the Leafs via the ECHL and Marlies. The two players have made a jump that isn’t easy for any hockey player, but they’re proof positive it’s not about where you are at any given moment – it’s about where you’re heading, and how much you’re willing to work to get there.

“We’ve kind of been laughing about it the last couple days, where we are now as opposed to where we were a few short months ago,” Sparks said of his discussions with Froese. “He’s put in the work and earned it as well. The fact that there’s multiple people doing it in this organization speaks to the players we have and the mentality that has kind of come about here now. Everybody has an opportunity to show what they have, and if you put in the work, you get rewarded.”

For now – with veteran netminder Jonathan Bernier working on regaining his form – all Sparks has is an opportunity. If he and the team perform well, his NHL days could be extended for days and weeks, if not longer. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has seen young goalies like Sparks get a chance and run with it, and he’s hoping the same thing happens now.

“He’s got an opportunity, like lots of kids have had before him, so it’s up to him to grab it,” Babcock said. “He’s got the best save percentage in the American Hockey League, he’s playing all the time down there. That’s a step before this step, and obviously we’re in need of some saves, so we’re going to have to play well in front of him. But it’s an opportunity, for sure.”

And it’s fairly simple to guess what it will take for Babcock to rate Sparks’ first game a success.

“Just the puck staying out of the net,” Babcock said. “If the puck stays out, I’m happy. I don’t care how he does it.”

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