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Unmasked: Sparks, Condon, Darling form bond

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Garret Sparks approached Mike Condon and Scott Darling during warmups before games in the American Hockey League two seasons ago to ask if they were interested in helping him coach at a new summer camp that would include beer-league goalies.

Two camps later, all three are close friends and in the NHL. If you ask each of the goalies, it's not a coincidence.

Darling was the first to make the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, and Condon earned a spot with Montreal Canadiens out of training camp this season. Sparks joined them with a late-November call-up to the Toronto Maple Leafs and is 3-1-0 with a .921 save percentage, including a shutout in his debut.

"Meeting those two guys was honestly one of the best things to ever happen to me career-wise," Sparks said. "It always feels like a dogfight as a goalie. The competition is usually too fierce to form friendships, and they were two of the first goalies in pro hockey I met and could relate to. Watching them have success and what they have done to achieve it was just like reading a blueprint for everything I needed to do to get there too."

After that first camp in 2014, which included a mix of talented young goalies and older weekend warriors, Darling earned a spot in Chicago the following season and helped his hometown Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. Less than a week after the Cup parade, he was back on the ice with Condon and Sparks for a second camp in suburban Chicago.

"We got to see how Scott was treated and revered," Condon said. "It lights a fire under your butt to know you are right there, all you have to do is just a little bit more work, just turn it up a notch and you could live your dream."

Condon is living it now. He was the backup to Carey Price with the Canadiens to start the season then got a much bigger role after Price has missed significant time with injury. Sparks joined the Maple Leafs after Jonathan Bernier was sent to the AHL on a conditioning stint.

The three goalies have supported each other throughout similar, and sometimes unlikely, paths to the NHL.

"The big thing when we talk is we were all kind of in the same stages, starting in the East Coast and then the AHL and now the NHL, and it was like we all had similar experiences," Condon said. "I watch when the guys play and we text when we have questions and we Snapchat funny stuff to each other when we are going through similar things. … It's cool to have that support system, especially when I was a year behind Scott in everything, from college to the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL. So to have a guy I could ask, 'Hey man, what's this like, what do is have to expect that might be different?' and have that reassurance there was invaluable."

Sparks, who spent almost all of last season in the ECHL, turned to Darling and Condon before his first start with the Maple Leafs.

"They were there for me and reassured me that if I played my game I would have success," Sparks said. "Not a lot of other guys have a support system like that."

It's a friendship that started because all three were members of a Facebook group of more than 18,000 dedicated to goaltending. The in-person relationship didn't start until Sparks approached Darling and Condon about coaching.

"He came up to me at red line in warmups and was like, 'Hey, what do you think about working for my camp this summer,' like literally before a game," said Darling, who already knew Condon because each goalie worked with goalie coach Brian D'Accord at Stop It Goaltending in Massachusetts for close to a decade. "We've been friends ever since. All three of us are really big into goaltending, students of the position. We talk to each other about techniques and mental stuff. We definitely talk a lot, whether it's a good game or a bad game we are all there for each other.

"You have your goalie coach and [Chicago's] Jimmy Waite is great, I can talk to him about anything, but it's also nice to talk to a guy who is going through what you are going through and knows how you feel, somebody who has been through it recently and can share your thoughts on the situation."

Garret Sparks
Goalie - TOR
RECORD: 3-1-0
GAA: 2.20 | SVP: .921
That's the idea Sparks is trying to bring to the group and summer camps.

"It wasn't always like that. It used to be rough and tumble," Sparks said, "But I have worked hard to remove the bad apples and make it a positive place for goalies around the world to use as a resource."

Sparks is the most active online of the three these days, but Condon will sometimes weigh in.

"If I have something to contribute that I think will help somebody, I will," Condon said. "If it helps one kid change his gear and play better down the road, I'm all for it. It's a good resource. I remember being up to 11 o'clock at night on my Dell desktop taking screen shots of NHL goalies and making albums of which pads I like. That's where I really started getting into it. I came across this group when I was a lot younger and it was a great forum to share."

The sharing hits another level in person at the camp, where the list of guest coaches included two-time Canada Olympic gold-medal winner Shannon Szabados, and Alex Rigsby, a two-time World Champion with the United States women's team. There was also a second camp in Pittsburgh featuring instructors including St. Louis Blues prospect Pheonix Copley, and Rob Madore, who is in the Maple Leafs system.

No one minds that half the students are beer-league goalies.

"It's a place we can go and just nerd out on goaltending, a safe haven for goalie nerds," Darling said. "There are some really good goalies there and some guys who just love the position and that's what it's all about. You don't have to be in the NHL to love goaltending. There's so many people that love and respect the positon, who are passionate about everything goaltending, whether it be the gear or they want to know about other goalies in the NHL."

With each year, it seems more of those NHL goalies are coming right from the camp.

"It's no fluke," Sparks said. "We have a lot of fun but we ultimately have the same goal in mind. We love hockey and study the position. We do what we do with passion and it has taken us far."

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