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Emergency NHL goalie’s win puts hockey in spotlight

Ryan Stieg

There aren’t many times where hockey takes center stage in this country.

After all, it’s considered Canada’s game by many and unless it’s the Winter Olympics, or occasionally the Stanley Cup Final depending on who is playing, hockey gets shoved behind other sports.

Sometimes it’s understandable as the NCAA basketball tournaments are getting closer, but unfortunately, hockey even gets placed behind the NFL Combine.

Yep, for many people, wondering what a college football player’s 40-yard dash time or how many squats he can do while shirtless is more exciting than watching the NHL.

Yet a weird situation in Toronto last Saturday caught people’s attention, even non-hockey fans, as a former Zamboni driver from Ontario was sent onto the ice in an act of desperation to save the game for the Carolina Hurricanes.

And David Ayres delivered.

He is an emergency goalie and I’ve written a column about them before, but here’s a quick refresher. When an NHL team is at home, it is required to have an emergency goalie on standby in the arena in case the starting and backup goalies on either team get injured.

They aren’t usually NHL-caliber goalies and typically come from local amateur leagues. It’s rare that they appear and their compensation for their time is memorabilia and the thrill of potentially appearing in an NHL game. I guess that’s something, but you’d think they’d get a paycheck of some sort.

Ayres’ experience was different than most goalies, though, as his memorabilia involved actually getting game action and a fun tale to tell. According to the Seattle Times, he had a kidney transplant in 2004, and at one point he drove a Zamboni for the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.

He also served as a goalie during practice for both the Leafs and the Marlies, but the chances that he’d ever get to play in the NHL were extremely slim. Then some crazy circumstances made him the national sports story of the week.

Hurricanes starting goalie James Reimer was injured and backup Petr Mrazek entered after that, but he was then taken out thanks to a collision during the second period.

With both goalies unable to perform, Carolina had to turn to Ayres, and early on it looked like it wouldn’t go well as Ayres entered the game with the ‘Canes holding a 3-1 lead before they padded it to 4-1. Then Toronto scored on its first two shots against the 42-year-old netminder. However, he recovered, stopping the final eight shots he faced and Carolina gave him some more offensive support as it defeated Toronto 6-3.

While Ayres and the Hurricanes celebrated, Toronto fans had a collective meltdown on social media. I don’t blame them as Toronto was picked by some to hoist the Stanley Cup this year and it just lost to a guy who’d never played in the league before.

According to the Raleigh (North Carolina) News & Observer, during the game, Ayres originally was sitting in the upper deck with his wife and eating a Reuben sandwich when Reimer got hurt. That — tickets to the game, not necessarily the sandwich — was his compensation for being an emergency goalie.

Ayres said his phone went off when Reimer was taken out and that he needed to get ready just in case. The odds weren’t great, but then Mrazek got a concussion after his collision followed by someone telling Ayres, “Get your gear on. You’re going in, man.”

Ayres’ appearance may have been an interesting story, but probably a forgettable one had he blown Carolina’s three-goal advantage. In that same News & Observer article, Ayres said that after he surrendered his second goal, he looked up at the scoreboard and told himself, “You can’t go out and embarrass yourself like this.”

Things got better after that and Ayres became the oldest goalie in league history to win his goaltending debut. He’s also only the third emergency goalie to see action in the modern era, so it’s clear that his story won’t be forgotten.

After the win, he was greeted with cheers in the locker room and showered with champagne, or something that looked like that. The guy trained and helped out a Canadian team, wore a mask with maple leaves plastered on it, and ended up celebrating with a team located in America’s Deep South. Not only that, but a team that had moved from a northeastern U.S. city.

There’s no way that Ayres could’ve envisioned that happening. And then things got even better for him. It seems like everyone wanted to hear his story.

The peak probably came when he went to New York and made an appearance on both Today and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert during Colbert’s monologue.

Colbert fakes a hamstring injury and Ayres trots out from behind the stage to send the show into a commercial. Later in the show, Ayres saves the day again as the show’s piano player pretends to be allergic and that he forgot to take his medicine. The goalie then plays piano with his glove and blocker on and it sounds terrible.

The bit wasn’t necessarily hilarious, but it was nice to see Ayres enjoying himself and it was clear the audience was enjoying that Colbert was explaining Ayres’ story.

The whole story about Ayres has the makings of a film or perhaps an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary or maybe even a book. He has already been named an honorary North Carolinian. A lot of people have used their moment in the national spotlight to make it last longer and he might end up doing so in the future.

If he wants to, he’s associated with a team that knows how to capitalize on things. Remember the whole Don Cherry hating Carolina’s postgame celebrations last year and calling them a “bunch of jerks.” The Hurricanes made T-shirts and referred to themselves as that throughout the postseason.

The News & Observer also said Carolina had sold 7,000 shirts with Ayres name on them and he’s not even on the roster. Ayres and the Hurricanes are a perfect fit.

Ayres is feeling good right now, but he knows it won’t last forever. So when asked about the future by the News & Observer, he said “I’ll be going back to work Thursday morning.” Just like a true goaltender, Ayres is just focused on doing his job. He may never appear in another game, but there’s one thing for sure.

He’s got a great story to tell and he put hockey under the spotlight again, even if it’s just for a few days.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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