Most of us have heard the great Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about The Emperor’s New Clothes. At the end of the story, it took a child to expose what everyone saw but no one dared to acknowledge. The King had no clothes. Everyone knew what was wrong, but no one dared say it.
After the Toronto Maple Leafs were beaten soundly 6-2 by an under-manned Ottawa Senators team that’s last in the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings, back-up goalie Garret Sparks said what has been on many minds for a long time. Something’s wrong. He said it quite clearly: the team lacked emotion; the guys in the room aren’t playing angry and, they aren’t taking losing personally. He called for someone to “step up.”
Sparks Isn’t the Maple Leafs’ Leadership
In short, Sparks called for the leadership on the team to take charge. Embedded in the phrases “somebody’s got to step up,” was the fact that he isn’t that person. He obviously knows his place in the team’s pecking order. That makes sense. He’s a first-year, back-up goalie. And, to those people who say he should just be quiet and stop more pucks, in the Senators’ game I thought the team hung him out to dry.
I don’t doubt that he upset the team with his comments. In fact, when he was asked if he meant the leadership should occur “on the ice?” or “in the room,” he answered “Wherever.” That comment pushes the point that leadership changes should happen both where fans can see them (on the ice) and where they can’t (in the room).
He might not be a team leader, but he’s in the dressing room with the guys every day. I trust him to know what’s happening.
Sparks also implied that the team had not been playing well in front of the goalies. He commented, “It’s been challenging. Me and Fred both have been trying to make saves for this team and that’s all we ever try to do. We know we’re missing some guys but we also have some pretty good players in the line-up in their place so we’re not going to use that as an excuse.”
Fans didn’t like it: they twittered, “It’s your first year in the league full time and you’re a backup. Know your place, shut up and stop the puck!” or “Don’t you dare bring Freddie into this.”
In fact, the reaction I’ve heard to Sparks’ comments has been mostly negative and, mostly it stems from a “who is he to say?” position. But, I believe that the negativity aimed at him is misplaced. Fans should be frustrated with the team, not with Sparks. He, at least, had the courage or frustration to man up to say something many of us were thinking.
On Jan. 21, I wrote a similar THW post titled, “Are the Maple Leafs Simply Not Good Enough?” I too wondered why the team seemed to lack desire. I think part of the frustration is that Sparks’ comments have confirmed what fans, like myself, are starting to think. This team is not as good as we thought or hoped it would be.
We are left with questions: is general manager Kyle Dubas’ plan to choose speed over grit a winning formula? Is this team simply too soft to beat the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs? Where’s the team chemistry?
Sparks Wasn’t the Right Messenger
Many people, however, don’t disagree with Sparks’ comments, just that he was the one to make them. In conversations, I have heard people say, “I thought he was right, but it doesn’t look good coming from someone with only 35 or so games on his resume.” Luke Fox of Sportsnet noted, “Had, say, Auston Matthews or John Tavares or Morgan Rielly demanded more passion, the echo might ring a little differently.” Really, these comments agree with Sparks.
On the other hand, fellow THW Maple Leaf contributor Joe Felice noted, “I like Sparks’ comment. It tells me something more about him. Based on his play, I kind of viewed him as the passive type. I guess I was wrong. The kid-gloves need to come off…a dose of reality is healthy, I think.”
One hockey pundit perhaps said it best when he noted: “I hate the team that shows all the dynamism, talent, speed like the one we know and love, but refuses to put together a full mental effort and allows rudimentary mistakes cost them games.”
Of course, coach Mike Babcock was asked about Sparks’ comments. While he didn’t disagree, he didn’t support Sparks either. He noted, “I just think being a professional is getting ready each and every day and doing your part. If you’re Sparky, your job is to stop the puck, if you’re a defenseman, it’s to move the puck and keep it out. So everyone just do your own job and we’ll all be fine.”
Where Is This Team’s Leadership?
When the Maple Leafs lost a stinker to the New York Islanders on Tavares’ ill-fated return to his former home, it was Zach Hyman who took the stage and called for a nastier on-ice presence. After the stinker to the Senators, Sparks joined him. Perhaps these are not the right guys to do it but, then, any player is the right person to stand up and risk being counted at this point.
I am pleased Sparks had the guts to say something. Similar to the little boy who dared to reveal the truth that the Emperor had no clothes, Sparks – within the confines of that storied Maple Leafs’ dressing room filled with all those multi-million-dollar men – is a player who makes only $675,000. Yet, he dared say what I think needed to be said.
The point of Christian Anderson’s tale is that sight encourages insight, and insight encourages action. I hope Sparks’ comments are the wake-up call the team needs. We’ll see soon enough.
I also hope that Sparks’ comments don’t send him to the team’s internal penalty box. I believe someone had to tell the truth, and if those charged with doing so don’t, then let the men on the team take a stand, whomever these men might be.