On Saturday night, David Ayres was watching the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes like any fan would. He was a measly spectator in the crowd amidst thousands. Ayres, the emergency backup goaltender for the Maple Leafs, spent many games like this, ready to go if needed.
Then, the Hurricanes starting goalie, James Reimer, was injured in a collision, forcing their reserve, Petr Mrazek, to enter the game. That was Ayres’ cue to head downstairs and put on his goaltending gear in case he was called upon on an emergency basis.
One of the marvelous intricacies of hockey is that on any given night, somewhere in each NHL arena there is someone who has some low level goalie experience available in case a team’s two netminders both get injured. They are usually players who played in college, junior or amateur leagues but never even scraped the surface of professional hockey. For them, it is a small hope at the opportunity of a lifetime, and a fantasy that can only be achieved in hockey.
Ayres, who is 42 years old, was formerly employed by the Maple Leafs organization as the Zamboni driver for their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. He never played hockey beyond the junior level, as a kidney failure that almost cost him his life 15 years earlier also put a stop to his career.
And yet there he was on the cusp of stepping into the crease for a live NHL game in the middle of a playoff race. Ayres had been in this situation three times prior, one injury away from entering the game. But it was not until this night in Toronto that he finally got the chance to live out his dream.
Mrazek endured a nasty collision that forced him to exit the game, leaving the Hurricanes without a goalie for the rest of the night. With that, Ayres was called upon to take the ice. He emerged from the locker room wearing a fresh white Hurricanes jersey, and Maple Leafs blue shorts and mask. His teammates for the night welcomed him with stick taps and words of encouragement as he took to the crease.
Ayres thought the moment would not faze him, as he practiced with the Maple Leafs many times before to stay in playing shape. But he admitted that on Saturday when he was suddenly propelled into the fire, he was overcome with jitters. Ayres never played in front of any crowd larger than a few hundred people before, and now he was playing in front of nearly 20,000 on the national stage.
Under the bright lights, Ayres also said that nothing could truly prepare him for how fast the skaters were going. The speed of practice, of course, was nothing compared to that of an actual game.
Ayres allowed two goals initially, but then proceeded to make eight saves in helping Carolina. This was plenty for the Hurricanes, as they played hard for their new netminder and won the game 6-3.
It was the first ever NHL win for an emergency backup goalie. With the sound of the final horn, Ayres made one final save with his glove hand, and was then mobbed by the Hurricanes congratulating him on the feat.
Even the Toronto faithful, who just watched their team fall in unbelievable fashion, rose to salute the hero of the game. It was a memory that not only Ayres, but the entire Hurricanes team would have for the rest of their lives. For the Zamboni driver-turned NHL goalie, the night got even sweeter when he was selected as the game’s first star. He was once again received by the Toronto crowd with responding cheers and applause.
He then joined Carolina in their locker room where he was mobbed once more, as if the team had just won a playoff series. For Ayres it was a dream come true, and for hockey fans it was an unforgettable moment. In all of sports, the play of the emergency back-up goalie is the only time when someone can go from your average fan and transform into an immediate star in a matter of a couple hours.
Now, Ayres, who may have never even been to North Carolina before, is a beloved figure there. Already, the Hurricanes have begun producing Ayres t-shirts, and the team plans to fly him in for their next game.
It is remarkable to think how earlier that Saturday evening Ayres was just an ordinary guy, and by the end of the night his name was recognized by sports fans across North America. Just one opportunity, one circumstance or one moment can completely alter someone’s life.