As absurd as it is to say, Garret Sparks is my favourite hockey player.
That statement demands some qualifiers. I should stress that I do not believe Sparks is above criticism for his performance last season, nor do I see him as some paragon of goaltending that is unfairly viewed by Leafs fans. Instead, I would like to share my story of how my love of hockey evolved, and how Garret Sparks unwittingly played such a central role in helping me get to where I am today.
To put it bluntly, I have lived a fairly privileged life.
I am an LGBTQ+ person, but I live in a country where I am not punished for being honest about who I am (it helps that I am “straight passing”, I am aware). I struggle with my mental health, but I have access to resources that allow me to manage my situation without financial penalty. Most importantly, though, I have had amazing educational opportunities, culminating with my enrollment at the University of Toronto as a Masters candidate in 2016.
These opportunities also brought their challenges; leaving home while my parents dealt with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s was a heartbreaking choice, and I returned as frequently as I could to ease their burden. On top of that, the culture shock of moving to Toronto and coping with the beginning of school was overwhelming, and I struggled to find my place in it all.
Hockey, and particularly the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, provided a grounding force in my life. Initially, the classic architecture of Ricoh Coliseum, the quality of play on the ice, and the inexpensive tickets helped make me a fan.
My first game — a seesaw contest with the Hartford Wolfpack which ended in a 5-3 victory — established my love for the team, with its bevvy of attacking stars and the goalie who backstopped the play that evening. Practically every weekend, I would immerse myself in the AHL; scheduling my readings, meetings, and phone calls home to fit around the four o’clock puck drops. At times, I even dragged a classmate along, chattering about how the squad was growing up in front of us.
For a while, watching the Marlies allowed me to take a much-needed mental break. Insulated from the stresses of school, home and city life, it didn’t matter which Marlies were on the ice as long as I was in attendance.
I felt as if I had finally found a connection to the city.
Two separate chains of events changed my relationship to the Marlies and to hockey in general.
The first, dubbed “the St Patrick’s Day Massacre” by Marlies fans, was an abysmal 8-4 loss to the Binghamton Senators. Antoine Bibeau gave up six goals in the third period to throw away a 4-1 lead, and would not start another regular-season game before ultimately leaving the organization that summer.
The second is somehow even more unpleasant: on two separate occasions, I was assaulted. Without getting into the gory details, my life as it had existed was turned upside down.
Working through the aftermath of mental and physical trauma, all while juggling grief over my grandmother’s passing in the fall of 2017 with my responsibilities as a student would not have been possible if not for the 2017-2018 Toronto Marlies and, especially, Garret Sparks.
Sparks’ “tornado of limbs” playing style appeared to reflect my mental state as I struggled to move forward with my life. More importantly, I empathized with the emotion that was evident in any successes or mishaps he faced. As he established himself as the Marlies’ de facto starter, beating out the challenge of Calvin Pickard, I drew my own conclusion: if this whirling dervish of a goalie could upset the odds, seize his opportunity and crush it, then there was no reason why I could not do the same.
Each achievement helped motivate me to get out of bed each morning and put my best effort into all my endeavours. On June 14, 2018, I graduated from the University of Toronto, achieving my Masters degree on schedule. That night, Sparks backstopped the Marlies to a crushing 6-1 victory in Game 7 of the Calder Cup final that (phantom Texas goal aside) capped off a tremendously successful season.
In the eternity that has passed since that life-changing night, so much has changed. I moved away from Toronto, started working in my field, and continued weekly therapy until I had the proper tools to process what I had been through.
Enough has been written about Sparks’ struggles last season, but I was heartened to see him battle through games in the best hockey league in the world. I reasoned with nearly every Leafs fan I met because, as Sparks had inspired me to push forward through some dark times, the least I could do was return the support in any way I could.
Needless to say, I’m positive that I own one of the only Leafs jerseys with “SPARKS 40” on the back.
Now a member of the Vegas Golden Knights organization, demotion to the AHL offers Sparks another chance to reset his career in a comfortable environment. In a vacuum, one could argue that the recipient of the 2017-18 Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award (given to the AHL’s best goalie) has earned one more kick at the NHL.
The reality is much murkier, however, with Malcolm Subban entrenched in Vegas and Oscar Dansk with the Chicago Wolves. These second chances are not given out freely; Sparks will have to earn any shot he gets by virtue of his own ability. At the same time, I have to believe that it is absolutely possible that he grabs the job with both hands.
I owe him that much.