Garret Sparks has been waiting for this opportunity.
The 25-year-old goaltender will make his first start for the Toronto Maple Leafs in more than two years when they play the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN360, TVAS, NBCSCH, NHL.TV). For Sparks, who grew up in Elmhurst, Illinois, about 20 miles west of Chicago, it’s the perfect scenario.
“I mean, I’m more excited to make my first start of the season and try to get a win and start off on the right foot,” Sparks said Friday. “The fact that I can get an opportunity to do it at the United Center is pretty special.”
Sparks, who was selected by Toronto in the seventh round (No. 189) in the 2011 NHL Draft, made his debut with the Maple Leafs in the 2015-16 season and recorded a shutout in his first NHL start, a 3-0 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 30, 2015. That season, he went 6-9-1 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .893 save percentage in 17 starts.
However, Sparks played the following two seasons with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, where he took his game to another level. In 2016-17, he went 21-9-0 with a 2.16 GAA and .922 save percentage. Last season, he was 31-9-2 with a 1.79 GAA, .936 save percentage and was a First Team AHL All-Star and named the league’s most outstanding goaltender. In the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs, he went 14-5 with a 2.22 GAA and .915 save percentage to help Toronto defeat Texas in seven games to win the AHL championship.
Following Maple Leafs training camp on Oct. 1, Sparks was named the backup goaltender over Curtis McElhinney.
“[He] built himself a history,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “His camp wasn’t what got it done. It was the history of knowing the guy and understanding you’ve got a long way to go, but a 25-year-old going in the right direction has a chance to get there.”
For Sparks, that direction began with the Chicago Mission in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League. Playing with the U18 team in 2009-10, he went 19-7-2 with a 1.98 GAA and .907 save percentage in 27 games before playing the next three seasons with Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League.
“He seemed to have really good games when it mattered when he played for us,” said Anders Sorensen, who coached him on the Chicago Mission U18 team. “There were other times, maybe in practice or if we were blowing teams out, you wondered if he was really present. But when it mattered, he was great.”
One of the biggest obstacles for Sparks has been staying healthy. In his first stint with the Maple Leafs, he missed nearly a month after sustaining a lower-body injury against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 17, 2015. The next season, he sustained a season-ending lower-body injury two games into the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs.
“It was just a matter of getting stronger and getting in better physical shape,” Sorenson. “The last couple of years, that’s been a real focus for him. He’s made huge strides in those areas and it’s finally paying off.
“On the ice, he’s always had that potential, you know? But there were so many guys who had the potential. What was going to set him apart was off the ice: how he was eating, his workouts and mental habits. He put a lot of work into that.”
While playing in the Chicago Pro Hockey League this past summer, Sparks said he was ready for an NHL opportunity. He models his game after Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, who, similar to Sparks, spent five seasons in the AHL (Norfolk and Rockford) before earning the backup goalie job with the Blackhawks in 2010 when he was 25.
It’s been a long road to get another opportunity with Toronto, but for Sparks, it’s been worth it.
“There’s a rollercoaster of emotions,” Sparks said. “Everything that doesn’t go your way is a learning process, right? The parts that went my way were amazing. The parts that didn’t go my way I learned from and I found myself back here.”
NHL.com correspondent Dave McCarthy contributed to this report.