Garret Sparks Talks About His Year, GGSU Camps
Hockey players are certainly among the most down to earth and accessible athletes in professional sports. Garret Sparks epitomizes that image.
The 22-year old has spent the past three seasons in the Toronto Maple Leafs system with both the AHL Marlies and the ECHL Orlando Solar Bears. This season Sparks posted a .936 save percentage in 36 regular season games for the Solar Bears and a tidy .921 SV% while giving up only 2 goals in his two AHL appearances with the Marlies.
He put up these impressive numbers while still finding the time to be a community leader for the popular GGSU Facebook page he first joined as a youngster, interacting with fellow-goalies and fans there on a regular basis.
As he did last year, Sparks has organized GGSU-sponsored camps this summer that feature fellow-pros like recent Stanley Cup Champion Scott Darling as instructors. InGoal had the chance to catch up with Sparks at the GGSU Legends camp, where he was one of the instructors. We also had the chance to sit down for a chat with Stanley Cup Champion Scott Darling.
Q: You were credited for being a big part of the Solar Bears making a berth in the Kelly Cup playoffs this season. Can you talk a bit about the ECHL experience, especially down in Florida, which is a very unusual hockey market (e.g., Tampa Bay, Everblades, Solar Bears do well while the Panthers struggle for attendance) – and perhaps how it compares to playing in a market like Toronto, even at the AHL level.
Garret: “The ECHL is a unique league to start with but playing in Orlando was a whole different deal altogether. It is a city that has one major sports franchise (Magic), just added another (Orlando City SC, MLS) and has a history of good hockey (IHL Solar Bears) so the fanfare down there for the team is massive, even if the actual hockey market isn’t. Most people think the Solar Bears are still one tier below the NHL as well, which helps. I’d say that people in Orlando are more wild for the Solar Bears than people in Toronto are for the Marlies just because seeing the Solar Bears play on a Saturday night at the Amway will bring in 11,000 fans and the atmosphere will be crazy.”
Q: You mentioned that you’re working hard to get back to at least the AHL level. What is your biggest strength as a goalie? What is one particular area you are trying to work on right now/this summer to improve? How are you going about it?
Garret: “If I had to pick one strength I have as a goalie, I would have to say it isn’t anything physical. I immerse myself in goaltending so deeply and criticize every little thing I do or see done, so I would have to say my ability to watch the position and learn from it would be my biggest strength. I have physical tools, but I would be nothing without the stability of my head and my instinct.”
“This summer is all about creating some physical tools, though. I am working on cutting a lot of unneeded weight and coming back strong and balanced in September. Dealing with injury troubles for the first time in my life last year allowed me to see the unneeded stress I put on my body by carrying around 10 extra pounds, so I am really working at losing that this summer. Lots of skating, eating super clean, doing things like yoga in addition to morning workouts is my basic plan. But it really comes down to cutting down on the fun time. If you’re gonna be up til 2 a.m., it can only be once a week because the body needs sleep to be its best. I figure the more I do in a day early on, the better it’ll be.”
Q: You were recently part of the 2015 Canada vs. USA Ice Hockey Classic that toured Australia. This year, the tournament benefited Brain Injury Australia and stopconcussions.com. North American fans are just starting to learn about the Australian hockey league (AIHL), which has been around for 15 years, and those who tune in to AIHL games via the internet are discovering it’s a fun league. Let’s talk about that trip a bit. What was your schedule like, what did you see/enjoy beyond the arenas?
Garret: “I really had a blast on that trip. Didn’t know what to expect going in, but it was a solid group of good guys and we all had a blast. The cities were incredible, the games were fun, the people were passionate, and the places we stayed were amazing. We got to do the Vivid Boat tour in Sydney and went out to Moreton Island for a day. I flew to Cairns with a small group, and visited the Great Barrier Reef out there as well. Between that trip and GGSU Camp my June was fun, but draining.”
Q: The roster was an interesting mix of NHL/AHL/ECHL/European players. Who did you have the most fun playing with that you had not previously played with, and why?
Garret: “I loved everyone on that trip, but the group of guys we took to Cairns was the best guys I met there on the trip. We had an absolute blast there for 2 nights.”
Q: As pro hockey players in North America, what did you think of the AIHL experience? (games, fans, etc.) How did it compare to games you’d experience at home?
Garret: “We were fortunate enough to have a Perth Thunder vs. Melbourne Mustangs game before our game in Perth, and they had a pretty good turnout for a league down in Australia. But when people are packing arenas 12k deep to watch AHL-caliber players go at it in a charity game, you know there is a market down there for hockey that hopefully the AIHL can corner.”
Q: What are your thoughts on how the AIHL could improve their reach for hockey, whether it’s drawing in more Australia fans, or getting more notice in North America? Do you feel like there was a strong connection between local fans and the players that came over for the trip?
Garret: “The fans were there, but they are hockey snobs. It isn’t enough to just be ice hockey; they want good hockey. They can tell the difference in talent regardless of ever watching the sport before or not. It’s really quite interesting.”
Q: What was the most memorable part of the trip for you?
Garret: “Great Barrier Reef for sure.”
Q: Is there a particular arena/game night that really stood out for you on the trip? Which one, and why?
Garret: “The game we won in Sydney was wild. I could do no wrong, and stopped around 60 shots, after getting shelled for 7 the first game. Just one of those nights.”
Q: You had tweeted a little bit about watching the Stanley Cup run while in Australia. Where did you get to watch the games, and was there a lot of local interest in the Cup run? If you got out to watch games, what was the local fan atmosphere like for those?
Garret: “We’d be asking bars to turn on cup games at 11am just to get a glimpse of what was going on over there. It was always a conversation starter.”
GGSU Camp & Coaching
Q: How did you get started with deciding to run a goalie camp?
Garret: “One day our admin group was just kinda tossing the idea around and I just started looking into things, crunching numbers, seeing if I could make it worth the time and effort and so far it has been!”
Q: How do you recruit those who help you out at the camp (fellow pro goalies etc)?
Garret: “Honestly…I recruited both Scott and Mike by talking on the red line while stretching before games.”
Q: When did you get your first real goalie coach? How has your coaching progressed over the years — is there still have one person you work with primarily in off-season?
Garret: “My first full time goalie coach was Mike Parson in Guelph. He was my one supporter early on, and kept me around there longer than most people would’ve liked as a 3rd goalie, and once I finally got my chance, I just kinda broke the door down. But he was instrumental in getting me a chance. Nowadays for the technical stuff, the only person I trust is Piero Greco. He’s molded me into something simple and effective, and I can’t thank him enough.”
Q: What should coaches consider in planning a practice that works for goalies, or at least better helps them?
Garret: “Flow drills should be dead. 1-on-0 scenarios should be kept to a minimum, and only for warm up, and should have a variety of options. Guys shouldn’t walk in and blast pucks full speed at goalies. Set up some cones, make forwards work at their game, work on changing their angle on shots, getting around obstacles. It’ll make everyone better. If I’m a coach, I have a steady diet of 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 flow drills, as well as sustained zone time/cycle drills that involve a lot of traffic.”
Q: You’re out on the ice here at camp, helping teach and mentor both kids and adults to better play the game. What do you think you uniquely bring to the table in that position as role model/mentor/coach?
Garret: “I have been just as bad or worse at the position than anyone who attends my camps, and just by playing the game I have gotten to where I am. I feel like if I can convey to people what I am talking about, and they can implement it into their game, I can help anyone improve.”
Q: What advice do you wish you had been given when you first started playing goalie?
Garret: “Work harder.”
Q: What position-related found tip have you found particularly helpful, whether given to you, or something you’ve discovered and tell other goalies?
Garret: “I think the squareness on pucks Piero has taught me is the key to goaltending.”
Q: What is the most important skill for a goalie?
Garret: “Tracking. Can’t cover for bad eyes.”
Q: Describe your favorite basic drill.
Garret: “I like any drill I can make some desperation saves in.”
Q: Describe a perfect warm up drill.
Garret: “Anything that gets me moving.”
General Goalie Questions
Q: How did you first end up playing goalie, and what drew you to the position? When did you know it was something you could do at a high or professional level?
Garret: “My dad was a goalie, so it was always something I thought about. Never think the decisions you make when you’re seven are gonna impact the rest of your life, but all I have ever done was play hockey cause I love it, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Q: Do you see yourself getting into coaching when your playing career ends?
Garret: “I don’t know about coaching; I still want to worry about playing for now. I don’t see me getting away from the game entirely at any point.”
Q: Who did you look up to as a goalie when you were a young player? Who are the goalies that you admire or study their style of play currently?
Garret: “I look at goaltending in general, and just love to deconstruct the best parts of everyone. I was always a Belfour and Turco fan though. Had a Khabibulin phase, too.”
Q: Who does your mask, and have you started thinking about next season’s design?
Garret: “Todd Miska does my masks, and I have something in the works already. It’ll be reserved, but nice.”
Q: How often do you sharpen your skates? Which skates do you use, and what hollow on your blade?
Garret: “As often as they need to be done & game days when I’m starting. I usually judge based on the ice but usually half inch.”
Q: How many knots in your toe lace and why?
Garret: “Inch and a half. I like the slack. I ditched the ties entirely for a while, but don’t mind them back on.”
Q: How tight to you strap your pads? How do you keep your knee pads from sliding around?
Garret: “I like to wear my pads tight because they are completely gutted in the knee, and I like the tight feel. If they were any looser, they would be everywhere. Tightness keeps me together. Knee pads stay up on their own with some Reebok Edge socks and clear tape. Edge socks make sure they don’t catch on anything.”