The giant of the 2022 design

At 6ft 6 and three-quarters tall, Maveric Lamoureux can’t even claim to be the giant among his National Hockey League draft hopes. Rather, that title goes to the obscure Jack Sparkes, an Ontarian who plays Junior A for St. Michael’s Buzzers.

Sparkes is a monster the likes of which has seldom been seen. Measurements taken at the prospect judging meeting (Combine) in Buffalo confirmed his height of 6ft 8… and a quarter. Only 18, imagine. He’s almost on par with Zdeno Chara, the tallest skater in the NHL.

But Sparkes runs better than Chara, who has always been able to compensate for his limited mobility with great understanding of the game and impeccable positioning. You could even say that Sparkes is as agile as a cat, which doesn’t make sense given his build.

“There’s more than one recruiter before me who has exclaimed, ‘He’s the size of Chara, but he walks better than him!'” says Buzzers general manager and head coach Rich Ricci.

But think again: There’s no public enthusiasm for Sparkes. You won’t find him on any list except the NHL’s Central Scouting, which ranks him 127th in their North American rankings.

You really need to do your homework to understand Sparkes’ appeal and potential given his modest stats in a league below the OHL. Because NHL teams are curious.

“We had 25 home games in the regular season. At least 20 NHL scouts were on duty in 15 of those games. I’ve spoken to about twenty teams and I know what they’re saying about him,” said Ricci, who believes his player will be drafted in July, probably around the fifth or sixth round.

Images: Hockey TV and OJHL

The project

“This takes me back to the good old days with the giant green ads,” enthused NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr over the phone. He’s the greatest player I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the classic case of the saying, bigger players take longer [à se développer].”

Sparkes is at an extremely embryonic stage in his development. There is not a bit of exaggeration in this claim. It’s only been three years since this ex-attacker was transferred to defence. He’s still learning the basics of his position and the pandemic backlash has slowed the process.

He’s only just started scoring points this season. He turned heads earlier in the year with eight points in his first 15 games, including four goals.

“He really excelled in the first half of the season,” said Ricci, his head coach and general manager. He started producing compared to other years and looked like a defender with potential.

La Centrale ranked Sparkes 71st on its North American list midseason. Ricci swears his player was in talks at the time to be drafted to the second or third round.

“Then he injured his back during a game,” says the ice hockey player. We were paralyzed for a month because of the pandemic and after that he got injured. By the time he was given the green light to return, he had been off the ice for almost two months. He was physically in catch-up mode all the time. His second half of the season gave him more trouble, but he regained his ease in the playoffs.

During its observations, spotted a player moving with an ease that betrayed his size, engaging in a bewildering work of destruction along the ramps. But also a defender sometimes overwhelmed by events, clumsy with the puck, whose decision-making was questionable.

“I would actually tell you that he has good hands, he is good with the puck,” Ricci specifies. But since he was confused in the second half, I realized his decisions weren’t the best, he shed a lot of pucks. He was still recovering from his injury. He surfaced and the first 20 seconds were good but then it turned sour as his body let him down.”

“I need to improve my decision making and my reading of the game,” acknowledges Jack Sparkes. I’m a student of the game and watch a lot of hockey [pour y remédier].”

A matter of development

Rich Ricci knows all the data when it comes to Sparkes. He knows that his stallion was still recovering from an injury in the second half of the season. He knows that he is still learning a new position and needs time to develop further.

And because of those extenuating circumstances, he believes in his player. Of course, a teacher always takes care of his students. Exuberant optimism must be taken into account and put into perspective.

“In my opinion, if the team that designs him works with him and takes the time to develop him, to manage him, five years from now, I have no doubt that he could play in the NHL. The rest is up to him. He has all the necessary tools, but he needs to familiarize himself with the position. He also needs to develop his hockey IQ.

“I’m just starting. I still have a lot to show for it,” assures the main prospect, inspired by Colton Parayko’s style of play.

Sparkes has signed his memorandum of understanding with Michigan State University, but his entry into the NCAA will have to wait. Next year he will report to the Buzzers again in Junior A.

“He needs to up his game and be dominant at our level,” said Buzzers GM Rich Ricci. He was good in the first half but he wasn’t dominant this year. Next year he could have the opportunity to represent Canada in the World Junior A Challenge, for that he has to have star status. He must account for the power play and play at a high level for 30 minutes per game before going to the NCAA.

That said, even if he does make it to the NCAA, there’s a side to Sparkes’ game we’re yet to see. On the College Circuit, a player involved in a fight will be automatically banned for one game.

“He’s a really good guy off the ice, very personable. He has manners. But there’s one thing I haven’t talked about yet: he has a bad side, says Ricci. It should come out when he’s at the pro level. There’s a side to him that people will experience for the first time. He is angry.

“If there were more fights in the OJHL, he would destroy boys…”

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