How Garret Sparks improved his game with a change in play style

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Photo Credit: Bruce Fedyck/USA TODAY Sports

The following is a post that goaltender Garret Sparks wrote for my oft-ignored side project, The Faceoff Circle, and his Facebook Goalie Group, GGSU in February 2015. With Sparks now being the talk of the town as the Leafs’ temporary starting goaltender, we both thought that this would be a good time to re-release this to a different audience. Enjoy!

In my spare time, I help manage a Facebook group known today as GGSU. It’s a group where goaltenders of all ages can exchange tips, talk about their equipment or anything else that comes to mind. As one of the more vocal and well-known administrators, I often receive messages touching on all sorts of topics. One of the more recent ones struck me as interesting and got me thinking about whether there was something I could do to help.

In the Summer of 2014, I was contacted by a goalie interested in participating in the Legends group of our annual camp in Chicago. The issue? He had just had surgery for a torn labrum in his hip and knew he was in for a battle with the rehab process. I admired his drive to get back into to goaltending at his age, especially coming off of an injury like that. Most goalies are only a single degree of separation from knowing someone who has undergone surgery for such an injury if they haven’t themselves. They are synonymous with the position of goaltending, particularly due to the evolution of the butterfly and our obsession with perfecting it. Like a runway model craves a thinner waistline, a goalie wants that perfect flare; toes covering from post to post, an 11” wall of jenpro & foam with a vacuum tight seal to the ice. What a lot of people don’t realize, is the toll it ends up taking on your body, and to be quite blunt, how truly pointless it is. I’m here to dispel the importance of the ‘perfect’ butterfly and tell you that you can still be an effective, if not a great goalie, without abusing your joints every time you fall. 

I’m one of the lucky ones. I can sit on my goal line with my toes on each post and pads along the goal line with about an 8” gap between my legs and complete a crossword puzzle in that position. It doesn’t affect me in the slightest. But most people aren’t that lucky, and I’ve done a lot of work to be as flexible as I am today. That gift has also been a curse, to the tune of 3 groin pulls this season, each caused by super-flexible limbs and a lack of core strength to reel those limbs back in. Groin pulls are a different animal from labrum tears, but they’re still just as prevalent in goaltending. They are both injuries of wear and tear, a result of the same processes being repeated by the body until it’s no longer able to compensate. After all, this is not a movement our body is not naturally equipped to handle hundreds of thousands of times in repetition. After the third injury, I decided something had to give, and made some changes.

I’ve learned a lot about my own body’s limits in the past few months. I’ve learned how to adapt my game to help avoid future injury, as well as maximize the use of my strengths. As a goalie, I find that my strengths are my size, flexibility, and ability to read plays as they unfold. Coupling those strengths with strong pushes from point A to point B rather than dramatic slides has significantly changed the way I play, and greatly increased my control. I paired this with a new core program to stabilize my body from the center out. Since then, I’ve watched my style transform a day at a time. Plays where I used to spread out like Jonathan Quick, moving across the crease as I split from side to side, now see me come across the crease in one solid piece. Where I used to shoot a leg out to the side, I now trust my positioning, depth, and eyes to handle the shot, not extending myself beyond exactly where I need to be. Say what you will about blocking goalies like Corey Crawford, someone chastised for a lack of perceived ‘skill’, but I have never been more athletic, acrobatic, or in control of my body in fourteen years as a goalie.

Hearing from this fellow goaltender made me think. If I could find a way to stop pucks while being less stressful on my body, could others at different levels do the same? There’s absolutely no reason they couldn’t. The changes rely on basic skills. T-pushes and shuffles preferred over butterfly slides and extended split saves. A heavier emphasis on the most fundamental building blocks of goalie movements is the easiest way to reduce stress on your body from the position. Good skating will get you into the correct position every time. If you are in good position, there is no reason ever to extend out of your body’s comfort zone. Good positioning is defined differently for different goalies, but having a higher sense of self-awareness in net and putting more emphasis on your on-feet skating movements will significantly reduce stress on your body.

These benefits extend beyond the initial save. Proper positioning also sets you up for more comfortable and controlled recoveries. Being in the right spot from point A to point B will make the move to point C easier, reducing the need for desperation-driven recoveries. An emphasis on your skating also extends into the way you think and see the game in front of you. It requires your mind to be sharp during play. You need to see the game in a more cerebral way and develop anticipations of plays and players. It makes you a much more alert goalie, which puts you that much more in control of the game when it’s in your end.

This is something I felt I had to share because I know that some goalies out there battle with a certain degree of pain every time they get on the ice. Make the game easier on yourself. Trust your mind and trust your feet. If you play a more controlled and calculated game, the wear and tear on your body will be much less than you are used to. It’s just something to be conscious of the next time you find yourself in a crease!