With young, talented players, what catapults them to the next level of their career frequently isn't the talent they have. What often does it is the adversity they overcome.
Adversity can take shape in many forms. For some it's injury, for others it's results, for others it can be any number of things. However, as the old adage goes, the response to adversity means much more than the obstacles themselves.
One year ago, Garret Sparks was a member of the Orlando Solar Bears. Sparks began to rediscover his game in the midst of the grueling minor league schedule, nursing injury and being forced to work his way back to the American League. Posting a .936 save percentage is no small feat at any level of pro hockey. His efforts with the Solar Bears reaffirmed the ability that made him a Maple Leafs draft pick in 2011.
A 2014-15 season in Orlando laid the foundation for Sparks to earn his place with the Toronto Marlies in 2015-16 and that adversity provided greater insight into keeping that place in the organization moving forward.
"I had a lot of positive time down there. I had some hardships down there as well but it was those hardships that kind of made me realize the things I need to change and if I hadn't had an experience like that last year, maybe I wouldn't have gotten it as easily as I have," said Sparks. "I'm very thankful for the time I spent there, I learned a lot, I had a lot of success as well."
"I think anybody that's down there, if you're able to take ownership of your career and make the changes you want to make on your own, it's a positive."
While Sparks made the most of his time with the Solar Bears, the ultimate goal of any player is to play in the NHL. For Leafs prospects, that means plying your trade with the Marlies until the call comes along.
Sparks entered the season with 26 AHL games on his record and will look to grow that number by a fair margin this season. The 22-year-old goaltender has greater clarity on what it takes to be a successful pro. With a renewed focus and commitment to hitting his stride, he is motivated to see it through.
"It's honestly a privilege to be here every morning. I took it for granted last year and I'll never do that again. There's nothing like coming to this rink each morning and being with these guys and being taken care of by everyone here," said Sparks. "I had an enjoyable time in Orlando but at the same rate, I don't want to go back there. This is the place to be. "
As most people in the game will tell you, the difference between the highest calibre of player and those who aren't quite there is consistency. Those who have the opportunity to play a lengthy period of time in the National Hockey League aren't always the most talented of their colleagues. Their longevity is the result of rarely experiencing drop-offs from night-to-night or whistle-to-whistle.
Sparks may not be the biggest goaltender at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, but he possesses good athleticism and a calm demeanour. Both of those traits are what you want from a position that can set the tone for a team. Sparks has also consistently demonstrated an important trait for a goaltender to have -- pucks hit him. The key to his success moving forward will be refining his technique to become automatic as skaters consistently get bigger, skate faster and shoot harder.
As the details improve, so will his ability to stop pucks at the highest level.
"I still have a lot I want to continue to work on and there's little parts of my game every day I come to the rink and I'm thinking about refining them and getting as close to perfect with those kind of things as I can," said Sparks. "The difference between being at this level and being at the next level is being able to bring your best game day in and day out."
"If there were ever a time to start rounding out my game it'd be now."
Sparks idolized former Leaf and Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Belfour growing up. Today, Sparks bears more of an aesthetic resemblance to Belfour's former batterymate, Trevor Kidd, based on the design of his equipment.
The Marlies goaltender can be found patrolling the crease in pads emblazoned with a checkerboard pattern and the Maple Leaf logo. After spotting a photo of Kidd in goal for the Leafs while at the Brian's Custom Sports factory, Sparks decided it would be a good idea to revive the look.
"It's fun and I think they look good and I've gotten a lot of compliments on them. I like paying my respects to the people that have done it before me and paved the way."
The vibrant equipment isn't the only reason Sparks is turning heads in the early stages of the season. His play between the pipes has been solid, giving his team a chance to compete each night. The contributions have been made possible in part with the help of the team's off-ice staff who have helped improve his ability to perform on the ice. The resources haven't been foisted upon players, but rather made available for those looking to make strides.
Sparks has been one of those players and the impact on his game is apparent.
"If you decide that you want it they'll do anything in the world to help you," said Sparks. "Being able to take advantage of all those opportunities this summer and continue to put in that work during the season, they've put all the right people in place and it's just up to the players here to take advantage of those things and use them to help their game."
With Sparks moving forward in his career, we'll be able to mark down the 2014-15 season in Orlando as a turnaround for the Leafs' goaltending prospect. As we chart his progress with the Toronto Marlies, another piece of the puzzle being assembled by the organization may round itself into form.