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Sparking the crowd at Lollapalooza

Tuesday, August 9th
Sparking the crowd at Lollapalooza

The next time you’re in need of a DJ on the ones-and-twos, consider giving Bucky Cheds a call.

Just make sure it’s not hockey season. In that case, feel free to give him a call if you need a masked man between the pipes.

Who is Bucky Cheds, you might ask? You might’ve seen him performing at the Lollapalooza Music Festival last month in Chicago, dressed in a hockey jersey and gold hockey helmet.

Bucky Cheds is the stage name for none other than Windy City native and former Orlando Solar Bears goaltender Garret Sparks, or as Sparks describes it, his “player alter ego.”

If his “Bear-guitar” solo at the 2015 ECHL All-Star Classic was any indication, music has always been a part of Sparks’ life. Bucky Cheds manifested for Sparks around the time of his NHL debut to provide the goalie a security blanket of sorts in the hockey-mad bubble of Toronto.

As Sparks explained, “It was just a fun character and allowed me to kind of escape the restrictions of what the ‘brand’ of Garrett Sparks required.

“I felt like I had lost a level of privacy in my life, or like I just felt like there was a distinct lack of acceptance towards being who you were on social media, so I created something alternative to that so I could kind of have my own experience and not receive too much attention.”

That coincided with a growing fascination with remixing and interpolating some of his favorite songs to create new compositions, something that had its origins for him during his junior days while playing for the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League with teammates Richard Paník and Brandon Foote, originally to pass the time on long bus trips. From there, he purchased some production equipment, which he has largely stuck with to the present.

Citing artists and producers with names such as G Jones and Mr. Carmack as inspirations from a technical standpoint, Sparks explained how his style has evolved from when he started to where he is now. Whether it’s for an audience of thousands or a small gathering of close acquaintances, what matters to him is sharing his music, and finding that connection.

“It's just kind of a kind of a renegade thing, just being able to show up and put together your setup in five minutes and be able to start playing music, I think is like the cool part of DJing, Sparks said. “I just like sharing what I've made with people; when people resonate with it, there's no better feeling.”

As for the etymology of his unique nom de plume? Like any nickname, there’s a story behind it, and like any good story worth telling, it’s perhaps best left to be explained in person. But the SparkNotes version is the birth of Bucky Cheds came from Sparks’ summer passion of roller hockey, and dominating his opponents.

“It was just like kind of a mode that I'd enter, and it was like I was just untouchable – like video game mode at that point – and my buddies used to be like ‘Oh no, you went Buck Cheds again,’ and then they just started calling me Bucky Cheds, and I just I felt like it was a really natural fit for the character that I was behind the decks [i.e., turntables] as well. I would say that Bucky Cheds is a character derived in just unbridled confidence and swagger that has a way of igniting a party.”

So how did this 29-year-old, whose day job for over a decade has been professional hockey puck-stopper (and who famously recorded a shutout in his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015) wind up spinning records at one of the biggest annual music festivals in the country, sharing the spotlight with acts such as Dua Lipa, J. Cole, Doja Cat, Machine Gun Kelly and Metallica?

Like any sports story, it’s a little bit of passion, hustle, timing and luck rolled into one. Sparks had been attending the summer music festival in Grant Park for several years as a fan. Through connections via his agent and mutual friends, he was able to gain behind-the-scenes access via C3 Presents (the promotion, event production and artist management company behind Lollapalooza) about four years ago, when he began helping out and networking.

During the 2021 event, rapper DaBaby was removed from the festival lineup, creating a momentary crisis for the production staff. While Sparks didn’t have his “Rockstar” moment just then, the fallout planted the seed for what was to eventually follow one year later.

“I happened to walk into the production trailer as they were kind of having this conversation, and everybody was just kind of silent, and [C3 promoter] Huston [Powell], just to cut the tension of the room, he looked at me and was like, ‘So, if I need a DJ for an hour, could you do it?’” Sparks recalled.

“I'd always talked about Bucky Cheds and there was buzz around it already, and he caught me completely off guard, but I was like, ‘Yeah, I've been telling you for years I'm ready for it,’ and so he told me to come back the next day to do a sound check or whatever.

“We didn't end up getting to do that but me and all the interns set up our own little stage basically in the backstage VIP area, and after the conclusion of the festival when Foo Fighters was done, everybody kind of came back to that area, and I DJed the party there for probably two hours, and it was a little bit of a try-out – it was fun for sure, but it was in front of all of the executives of Lollapalooza basically, so you're playing music to people that do this professionally.

“I didn't really feel it at the time, but clearly there was a certain amount of opportunity there, so I think I just passed the test doing that, and they were kind enough to give me an opportunity to show what I had this year on stage and it was a really cool experience.”

How does Sparks – a notorious self-critic – assess his debut performance on Perry’s, one of several stages that comprise the festival?

“I thought I just pulled a lot of rookie maneuvers. I was on technology that I hadn't used before and it wasn't really me. I probably should have stuck to what I knew, but I wanted to be a big-boy DJ and I ran into some technical problems,” Sparks explained.

“My mixing wasn't great, but you know what? I ended up having a great time still, and I played 35 minutes of music at Perry's, which is a legendary stage where I have seen many of my favorite artists perform; it was definitely a bit of an out-of-body experience and I got to play some music that I was really proud of having made.

“The kids [in attendance] – I will say they loved it. They were the ones that brought the energy and made me feel welcome, and at the end of the set they were chanting my name. From a musical standpoint I thought I had way more to give…but from a performance standpoint, people loved it, and I felt as the noon opening DJ your job is to get the crowd engaged, and if they're chanting your name at the end of the set, I think you did your job.

“As with hockey it's not always pretty, but I still feel like I got the win and that's all I really care about at the end of the day – is getting the win. I would say overall I have work to do still, and I think that's the fun part all of this, is you know I've had great moments; I've had tough moments in any of the careers that I've taken on, and the tough moments just make me want to bear down and be better going forward. It would be easy to tell you everything is perfect, but if I want to be a legitimate musician a lot more time has to be invested into the act. Overall, [it was] an unbeatable experience and something that I'm really hoping that I can find a way to do more in the future.”

The irony of the fans chanting his stage name is not lost on Sparks.

“Honestly, it's funny because it's like the character of Bucky Cheds kind of screams for attention, but the true reason for it is because I wanted to stay out of the eyes of attention,” Sparks said with a chuckle. “So to get booked for Lollapalooza under that name kind of ruined the whole thing that I had built up and had going for so many years, because it was kind of like my own thing that nobody really knew about it for the most part. But...things happen for whatever reason, and it was cool to get that opportunity to play as a character that I kind of cultivated over the years.”

By no means, however, should one infer that this latest venture means Sparks has hung up his skates and stored his pads in mothballs. He’s still seeking that next opportunity in “The Show,” and getting that next win on the ice.

After beginning the 2020-21 campaign with Orlando before earning an American Hockey League contract with the Calgary Flames, Sparks parlayed his performance into a one-year NHL contract with the L.A. Kings for the 2021-22 season, where he primarily played an hour east outside of Los Angeles with the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Ontario. The season notably included a victorious return to the NHL for Sparks in mid-December in a 3-2 win at Washington that was followed by an emotional and soul-baring post-game media scrum.

Throughout the season, however, Sparks battled through injury, and the veteran netminder currently finds himself an unrestricted free agent, seeking a new contract.

Apart from a trip in mid-July to Italy for his sister’s wedding, Sparks has been in the gym five days a week training with sports scientist and performance coach Ian Mack, whom he has worked with over the last two off-seasons. He also regularly participates in summer on-ice sessions throughout the Chicagoland area with several other pro-level players, among them Patrick Kane, Connor Carrick, J.T. Compher and Riley Sheahan.

The desire and dedication is clearly there. While he still battles to earn that next NHL job, Sparks acknowledged the double-edged sword of Bucky Cheds’ ascension.

“I kind of feel like having performed Lollapalooza might have given people a little bit of a pause as to like, ‘What's he doing?’ – you know? It's just very off the beaten path of what professional hockey is accustomed to, and so I feel like I'm kind of working uphill to find an opportunity,” Sparks conceded. “But it’s like I said with the DJing stuff – you don't know when it's gonna come or who's gonna give it to you, but you know if you put in the work you’ll at least be ready for the next opportunity.

“I was undefeated in the NHL last year with a .936 save percentage. I feel like a lot of teams probably could use a goalie who can win a game. It's a tough league and that's a tough league to win games; all I’ll say is I'm not even 30 years old yet, and I'm just waiting for the next opportunity to go prove that I can win hockey games.”

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