I’ve spent a lot of time in my life in ice rinks. When I was younger it was watching my brother’s practices and games as he went through the ranks playing goalie in North Carolina and Virginia. Even now he works and plays at a rink less than a mile from my house where I have watched him play beer league. Because of this I have always had a soft spot for goalies and often defend them when many wouldn’t (see most Cam Ward content I have produced).
During the most recent lockout, he got to practice with a couple of players of various levels of pro hockey as they were conditioning to get ready for the season. He said it was some of the most fun that he has ever had and an absolute thrill to share the ice with players of that level.
The NHL has the most unique possibility in all professional sports, a man off the street suiting up for a professional team. The even crazier part is this only happens for goaltenders which is the most specialized position in any sport. These players are called emergency backup goaltenders (EBUGs), with the most prominent being accountant Scott Foster before this season. He played a period for the Blackhawks in 2018.
As Alec wrote yesterday, the Canes are familiar with an EBUG situation when equipment manager Jorge Alves served as the EBUG in 2016. However, the process has changed for EBUGs, with the league no longer letting a person under contract for a team serve as an EBUG. Now each location must supply an EBUG that can be used by either team.
Only one goalie (Scott Foster, Chicago Blackhawks) had been called into action since this rule was put in place, but it happened again on Feb. 22nd. With both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer getting injured before the end of the second period against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the world would meet David Ayres.
Ayres has one of the most unique stories ever in sports, but every step it seemed to get even more strange and exciting. He previously received a kidney transplant. Due to the placement of the transplanted kidney, it is located higher and more exposed. He originally thought he would never play hockey again.
He’s a 42-year-old Zamboni driver at the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies’, home arena. When the Marlies found out that he played goalie, he would fill in as a goalie from time to time in practice for the Marlies and Maple Leafs.
Because of this experience he also serves as both arenas’ EBUG. Ayres actually served as an EBUG for the Charlotte Checkers earlier this season before being called into action for the Canes. You just can’t make this up if you tried.
Ayres came out onto the ice wearing Marlies blue equipment, and a Hurricanes jersey. He took some warmup shots before the game resumed with 8:41 left in the second period with a 3-1 lead. When he let in goals on his first two shots it didn’t look good. You could see it on the face of Rod Brind’Amour, but the players rallied around him and told him to just settle in.
From the third period on, everything was perfect, and at every point you couldn’t help but feel joyous for a man living out his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. The team rallied on both ends of the ice, only allowing eight shots and scoring three more goals to support the fill-in goalie. Ayres stopped all eight of the shots, each one eliciting chills when watching live and when played back. He was stopping NHL players that he sees regularly in practice to win a game, and at every stoppage of play, players on both sides gave him stick taps and talked to him.
At the end of the game, he won first star of the game and skated out onto the ice as an away player, to a full standing ovation. Upon finishing his interviews, he walked into the locker room to showers from the players and the whole team embracing him. Rod Brind’Amour did what he does best and encapsulated the moment in only the way that he can in his postgame speech.
It was just a picture-perfect moment of an ordinary man getting to play in the NHL and beat the team that he practices against. For his troubles he received an autographed stick from Reimer, his game jersey, and gifts from Brind’Amour and players. He was payed $500 for his pro tryout contract.
The love for Ayres didn’t end there. The Canes made player t-shirts with Ayres’ name on the back. These shirts raised money for the kidney foundation of his choice, and himself. They also flew Ayres to Raleigh after an extensive media tour. In Raleigh he was made an honorary North Carolina resident and sounded the storm siren before the Canes’ next home game. Even now he is still in the running for the best moment of the season by the NHL.
We’re nearly through The Greatest Moments of the Season... So Far bracket!— NHL (@NHL) May 26, 2020
Here’s where things stand heading into the final 8 ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/furBDsmmZi
The Ayres game just brings everyone back to their childhood memories and dreams just thinking about what they would do in that kind of moment. For me it brought back memories of late nights at the rink and trying to fall asleep in a car smelling of goalie gear coming home from practices.