It started out as a game pitting the third-worst and the worst teams in the NHL with the only serious ramifications being which team would fall further down the standings and further up the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes. And, for the most part, they delivered, playing a plodding game that was devoid of entertainment value or much compelling action.
But sometimes, on those all too rare occasions, the hockey gods deliver something so touching, so beautiful and so memorable that it wipes all those negatives out and provides us with a wonderful enduring memory. And that happened after the game was over and the three stars had been handed out in the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
In an interview with in-arena host Lauren Howe after the game, Howe pointed out to goalie Garret Sparks that he was the first goalie in Maple Leafs history to pitch a shutout in his NHL debut. Sparks responded by lowering his head and crying. All he could muster was, “Thank you. Thank you,” before heading off to the dressing room. In a season that has been full of much of the pain Leafs coach Mike Babcock predicted when he was hired in Toronto, Sparks provided the most prominent feel-good moment so far.
Sparks’ journey from the ECHL and his odyssey to the NHL had been pretty well documented before his first NHL start Monday night, but his reaction to it was epic, one of those all-time great moments. In stopping all 24 Oiler shots, Sparks became just the 25th goaltender in league history to record a shutout in his career debut, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And while he was sharp in the win, he did have some help from a hapless Oilers team that seemed to play with almost no urgency. Only nine times since the league began tracking shots on goal has a goaltender recorded a shutout in his NHL debut and faced fewer shots than Sparks did. The Oilers had only two shots in the first 10 minutes of the game.
But full credit to Sparks, who never seemed to get ahead of himself and looked poised and controlled on every opportunity the Oilers had. Like his goaltending pals Scott Darling of the Chicago Blackhawks and Mike Condon of the Montreal Canadiens, Sparks was presented with an opportunity and made the most of it. What happens now is anyone’s guess. Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Sparks would get the start Wednesday night in Winnipeg, but only if James Reimer can’t play. Reimer, who is from Winnipeg, has earned that start in Babcock’s eyes regardless of what Sparks did in his first game.
A slightly more composed Sparks spoke after the game and stopped mid-sentence a couple of times to apologize for not having more to say. When asked what it felt like to be the first goaltender in Maple Leafs history to earn a shutout in his Maple Leafs debut, he said, “I don’t know. They’ve ben playing hockey here for a long time, so I think that’s pretty cool.”
It was when he talked about his parents, Mike and Lisa, who flew in from Chicago for the game that Sparks was most emotional and eloquent. “We had to make a lot of sacrifices just to get me through minor hockey and there’s been bumps and bruises along the way,” Sparks said. “I’ll never be able to repay them no matter how much I end up making in this game. I owe everything to them.”
According to Babcock, he also owes his goalposts a few kudos. There were a couple that went off the iron, prompting Babcock to acknowledge that Sparks, “had a bit of pixie dust to him,” in the game, but also commented that Sparks looked every bit his 6-foot-3 size in the net and remarked on the swagger he displayed.
The Oilers did their part as well, turning in a rather putrid effort. For a team so young and seemingly so desperate to prove itself, it’s hard to fathom how it could play with such little sense of urgency. Conventional wisdom would dictate that if there’s a goalie who hasn’t played in the NHL before in the net, you try to get to the scoring areas and test him early. But the Oilers looked entirely disengaged for the first half of the first period and generated just two shots on goal.
“It allowed me to soak it in and not have to do anything too challenging right off the bat,” Sparks said.
But the story of Garret Sparks’ first game in the NHL was not about that. From now until eternity, no matter what he accomplishes or fails to accomplish in the game, the record will always show that he started his NHL career with a shutout. And those who got to see it will always remember his reaction afterward.
After all, it’s that kind of stuff that compels us to watch the games in the first place.