by Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat
When Garret Sparks was seven years old, his parents, Mike and Lisa, decided it seemed like the right time to introduce him to hockey.
They signed up Garret for the Scooters program at the Elmhurst YMCA – the same outdoor rink where Mike started playing in fourth grade and developed into a goaltender. Scooters, a program that continues to thrive today, encourages parents to get on the ice with their children while teaching the basics of skating and hockey.
“We had a lot of fun,” Mike said.
For the final session, the Scooters coaches wanted to hold a scrimmage to show off everyone’s progress. Just one problem: Every kid was a skater. Goaltending wasn’t part of the program.
With the parents off the ice and watching from the other side of the glass, a coach asked for two kids to volunteer to play goalie. Nobody moved a muscle. So he asked again.
“I distinctly remember looking through the glass and seeing my dad standing there,” Garret said. “And being like, ‘He’d probably like it if I was goalie.’ ”
So Garret volunteered.
“Caught me totally by surprise,” Mike said.
Dad helped son put on the YMCA’s donated equipment: Black and blue pads. Red mask. Yellow jersey. It was a mismatched set of gear, but it was the perfect match for Garret.
“I felt like I could be a bigger factor in the game there,” he said. “I just wanted to be important.
“My legs shot out. My hands worked. I could stand there. I could look at the puck. I worked it out. I had a goalie coach. I mean, he was my dad, but he knew how to play goalie. So I had somebody who knew the basics, but wasn’t drilling things into my head or giving me ideas about the position. He was just telling me the fundamentals that were going to make me successful.”
Has the 26-year-old Chicago Wolves standout been a successful goaltender? Let us count the ways. During his youth hockey years with the Chicago Blues, Chicago Mission and Team Illinois, his teams won either a state, national or international championship all seven years he played.
He had so many trophies crammed into the basement of his Elmhurst home, he wouldn’t even pause his rambunctious mini-sticks games when something broke.
“I didn’t have any concept of how they might be worth something someday,” Garret said. “Not monetarily, but as something you could look back on. They’d be on shelves and they’d fall and I’d be like, ‘Eh. Oops.’”
Garret was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. But before he turned pro, he won a gold medal playing for the United States in the 2013 U20 World Junior Championships. His teammates included Seth Jones, Johnny Gaudreau, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ryan Hartman and other NHL mainstays.
Once he turned pro, he kept climbing the ladder. On Nov. 30, 2015, he became the first goaltender in Maple Leafs history to produce a shutout in his first game for the franchise. In 2017-18, he backstopped the AHL’s Toronto Marlies to the Calder Cup title and earned the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award as the league’s most outstanding goalie.
Last year, Garret spent the entire season with the Maple Leafs. This year, after being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights organization, Garret has retained his spot at the top of the AHL’s statistical charts while playing for the Wolves. He put together a scoreless streak of 191 minutes, 14 seconds Oct. 23 through Nov. 10, breaking the franchise record set by Matt Climie in 2013 while making 115 consecutive saves.
But for all of these achievements and accolades, Garret always has felt like he had to overcome hurdles and doubters in order to prove himself.
In high school, the 6-foot-2, 188-pounder weighed 225 pounds and was told he was too big to succeed in net. As soon as he showed otherwise and the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm drafted him, he was told he needed to lose 20 pounds in order to join their team.
Weight wasn’t his only issue. Garret boasts a free spirit’s personality kindled, in part, by the fact his parents raised him to be an independent thinker. He also prefers not to turn off the intellect that earned a 32 on the ACT and flirted with straight A’s at Elmhurst’s York High School.
“A lot of people were like, ‘He’s pretty raw and his attitude isn’t what you’d expect of a hockey player and his process is different and his interests are different,’” Garret said. “A lot of people were willing to write me off at that point.”
A FORWARD AT HEART
Which leads to another example of Garret’s willingness to go his own way. As much as he enjoys being a goaltender, he might love playing forward even more. When he was playing for the Marlies and Maple Leafs, he’d show up at outdoor rinks randomly in Toronto and play rat hockey with strangers.
“Every once in a while, somebody would recognize me,” Garret said. “But I wasn’t saying who I was. I was just playing hockey.”
“All summer long, he doesn’t go anywhere near his goalie equipment,” Mike said, “unless it’s for a charity game.”
Garret started this practice years ago when, in a remarkable coincidence, he struck up a friendship with Robert Levin – the son of Wolves owner Don Levin.
Robert, one year older than Garret, was a junior hockey goaltender before going on to play at Arizona State. Robert and Garret had a mutual goaltender buddy from Libertyville named Joey Garapolo. At some point, Garret discovered Robert and Joey would go to the Wolves’ practice facility in Hoffman Estates during the summers and train with Wolves general manager Wendell Young and goalie coach Stan Dubicki. Garret wheedled his way into the group – but not to work on his craft in net.
“He would come out and play forward,” Dubicki said. “He just loves playing. He’s a hockey-aholic. He just has fun. He’s 26 years old, but he’s like a 14-year-old kid. It makes him feel great. Actually, I think it makes him a better goalie, too. Because when you start playing forward, you start thinking how they think. And he’s a pretty darn good forward. He handles the puck really well.”
“I was just shooting for the goalies,” Garret said. “I was just doing the drills correctly for them. I wanted to shoot. Wendell, seeing this 18-, 19-, 20-year-old professional goalie refusing to play goalie, that probably blew his mind. I didn’t have that drive to put on the pads every day. The agreement was every once in a while I’d play goalie. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey and training. It was just enjoyable.”
“We’d work hard here,” Garret said while sitting in the Hoffman Estates practice facility, “then we’d spend the rest of the day at the Levins’ pool house. Then we’d find a way to get back up in the morning and come back here and do it all again. It was amazing. We were living.”
“THE WOLVES WILL ALWAYS BE THE WOLVES”
One of Garret’s goals while playing for the Wolves this season: Recapturing that “living” feeling he used to have. A bit of it slipped away last season in Toronto, where he dealt with his first serious injury (a concussion) and the fallout that followed.
Garret doesn’t just care about how he fares in the net, he cares about how the Wolves fare in the marketplace. He grew up watching the Wolves win big and wants the next generation to be eager to do the same.
“I would see a lot of Wolves games on TV on the nights I didn’t have games or I had practices,” Garret said. “I enjoyed watching the games. I enjoyed the broadcasts. I was very familiar with who their best players were. As a kid, the Wolves had an impact that the Hawks didn’t have because they were accessible. I think we have a special opportunity as a franchise to bridge that gap between the NHL and children who aspire to be at that level.
“For a long time, I’ve been interested in the whole organizational side of hockey. This is a unique situation where this is a very storied franchise and we have the ability to bring that story forward. This team went to the Calder Cup Finals last year. We have good players. We have good coaches. We have good facilities. We have a great affiliate. The Wolves will always be the Wolves. I just think we can continue to – through winning and how we go about our business – generate buzz about this team in this city.”
Garret has sent emails to Wolves officials filled with ideas about how to generate this buzz. One thing he’s definitely going to do: Head back to the Elmhurst YMCA and work with kids at that fabled outdoor rink. His current plan is to show up on Feb. 17 when school’s out for Presidents’ Day.
“Can’t wait,” he said.