TORONTO - A year ago, goaltender Garret Sparks was in the midst of a 13-game road trip with the ECHL's Orlando Solar Bears. A night after allowing four goals to the Fort Wayne Komets, he was on the bench in Kalamazoo, Mich., awaiting the next bus ride and his next start.
"You have a duffel bag and you don't get to go home," Sparks said.
Fast forward to late November 2015 and Sparks is in the NHL. Recalled by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday to back up Jonathan Bernier, the 22-year-old got the chance to make his first NHL start Monday night against the Edmonton Oilers.
As he rode from Kalamazoo to Greenville, S.C., Sparks tried to block out any thoughts about breaking through to higher levels of hockey. Injuries marred the start of that season, so he focused on his job in net and was one of the best goalies in the ECHL.
"I enjoyed the experience," Sparks said Monday. "Even when I was down there I considered myself fortunate enough to be playing hockey every day. I took it game by game and listened to anybody that would help me."
Sparks is one of two Leafs players to go from the ECHL last season to the NHL now, joining forward Byron Froese. Teammates with the AHL's Toronto Marlies, Sparks and Froese have laughed the past couple of days about how far they've come in such a short period of time.
"I think the fact that there's multiple people doing it in this organization speaks to the players that we have and the mentality that has kind of come about here now that everybody has an opportunity to show what they have and if you put in the work you get rewarded," Sparks said.
A year ago Froese was playing for the Cincinnati Cyclones before the Marlies signed him to a tryout and then a contract. If anyone appreciates Sparks' ascent through the minors, it's Froese.
"Obviously everyone's dream is to hop into the NHL, but I think it really makes you appreciate it and makes you realize that you need to work hard every day to maintain where you want to be and to get better," Froese said.
Froese made his NHL debut Oct. 24 and hasn't been out of the Leafs' lineup since. His message to Sparks was to continue doing what got him to the NHL.
That's what coach Mike Babcock wants. Sparks is second in the AHL with a .938 save percentage and fourth with a 1.90 goals-against average.
Coupled with Bernier's monumental struggles and James Reimer's injury, that success earned Sparks a chance with the Leafs.
"He's got an opportunity like lots of kids have had before him, so it's up to him to grab it," Babcock said. "I think there's a whole bunch of people that I've coached over the years that you bring in, you give an opportunity ??? some guys grab it and some guys don't. The guys that grab it, they go on and have good careers. Up to him."
Bad breaks in the form of injuries cost Sparks a chance to make the Marlies out of training camp last season. Since then, the Leafs traded goaltending prospect Christopher Gibson to open up a spot, and Sparks has outplayed Marlies teammate Antoine Bibeau to get this opportunity.
While the Leafs grapple with the difficult question of how to handle the worst stretch of Bernier's career, Sparks can show just how far he has come in the past year and do so in the NHL.
"I'd like to think I'm just a more well-rounded, better version of myself," Sparks said. "I've been playing hockey for a long time, and this is the coolest thing that's come of it yet."
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