David and Sarah Ayres go to the gym on weeknights. They almost never go on a Saturday, lest he gets pressed into service as an emergency backup goalie in an NHL game.
They went to a fitness centre despite that last Feb. 22, and David overdid it big time. As he exercised, he added more and more weight to the leg-press machine, until he lifted 900 pounds. “I’ve never seen Dave leg press as much weight for as long as he did,” Sarah says.
For two years, he had served as an emergency netminder at all Maple Leafs games at Scotiabank Arena. The league requires home teams to have one ready in case the starter and backup for both themselves and the visitors get injured.
To that point, it had happened only once in NHL history – and never to David Ayres.
“I did as many reps at the gym as I could,” says Ayres, who is six feet and 200 pounds. “I didn’t want to waste a perfectly good workout. I thought there was no way I would ever get to play.”
Shortly after that, the couple drove to Toronto from their home in Bowmanville, about an hour to the east, fully expecting to be spectators as they had so many times.
When they got to the rink, they left David’s gear in the car – it’s not as though he would need his pads and blocker anyway – and bought Reuben sandwiches and fries at a concession stand. Then they ascended a long series of stairs until they reached Section 317, where they stand and watch games from the rail.
“On the way up, Dave complained that his legs were killing him,” Sarah says. “He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I had to play tonight?’”
They never imagined it would happen. They never imagined that David, a 42-year-old former Zamboni driver with a transplanted kidney, was going to play the lead in the feel-good hockey story of the year. They never imagined it would captivate so many people that it would prompt Disney to make a film.
Early in the first period, James Reimer, the starting netminder for the Carolina Hurricanes, suffered a knee injury and was replaced by Petr Mrazek.
That left nobody else if Carolina’s backup got hurt, so David fetched his equipment from the parking garage and began to get dressed in a lounge beneath the stands.
Sarah started to text family and friends to let them know to tune in to the Hockey Night In Canada telecast in the highly unlikely event that David entered the game. It was the third time he had put gear on, but circumstances had never been so dire that he was needed.
Sarah was in Section 317, peering down at her phone, when she heard the crowd roar with 8 minutes 41 seconds left in the second period. Looking up, she saw Mrazek sprawled motionless on the ice. He had incurred a concussion in a collision with Toronto’s Kyle Clifford.
Stunned, she texted a message – “WTF” to David, who was unaware of what had just transpired.
“The second goalie is down!” she told him.
At the time, the Hurricanes were applying a name bar to the back of a jersey for David. The game was delayed for 10 minutes until he was prepared to play.
“I was sick to my stomach the whole time,” Sarah says. “I thought, ‘If he messes the bed, it is not good for any of us.’”
When Ayres skated out, he was so flustered he headed for the wrong goal. Players shouted, “No, no, no! The other end.”
“After all these years of practice, I was very excited,” David says.
He had been a practice goalie for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL for eight years and for the Maple Leafs for two.
“I could feel that all eyes were on me,” he says. “I was thrilled to be in the net, but it was one of those moments I would have liked to be watching myself.”
Carolina was ahead 3-1 when he came in, but there was half a game to play. Carolina scored again to make it 4-1, then Toronto scored on its first two shots.
“I threw all of my expectations out,” Sarah says. “I told myself to just enjoy it, that it was something that would never happen again.”
Ayres made one save before the teams headed to their dressing rooms to rest between the second and third periods. During the intermission, Reimer took a seat beside Ayres and told him to relax, that he was doing fine.
Before they went back out onto the ice, Ayres told his teammates if they scored one more goal, he would shut the door on the Maple Leafs.
“They looked at me like I had three eyes,” he says.
In the final 20 minutes, he made seven saves and the Hurricanes won, 6-3. He became the first emergency backup goalie in NHL history to be credited with a victory (on March 20, 2018, 36-year-old accountant Scott Fisher entered a game for the Chicago Blackhawks, but did not play long enough to officially get the win) and was selected as the game’s first star.
“I was halfway down the hall when one of the game operations officials stopped me and told me to wait,” Ayres says.
Then he was summoned out for a celebratory skate onto the ice.
“I have seen many games in that arena, and when the Leafs lose, the place usually empties out pretty quickly so I thought nobody was going to be out there,” he says. “When I stepped onto the ice, I looked up and the arena was three-quarters full and everyone was on their feet.”
David did a national television interview after the game, and then Sarah was asked to join him for another. With apologies to the Stanley Cup champion Lightning, theirs was arguably the biggest story of the season in the NHL.
Ayres, whose usual recompense for being the emergency goalie is free admission, was paid $500 by the Hurricanes.
The following day, Ayres flew to New York and was shuttled around in a limousine as he made multiple television appearances and met NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. On Tuesday, he and Sarah flew to Raleigh, N.C., and were honoured before a Hurricanes game. David signed autographs for fans lined up on the concourse, where one guy asked him to sign his forearm so he could use it as an outline for a tattoo. The Hockey Hall of Fame added his goalie stick to its collection and James Corden, the late-night television talk-show host, hooked him up with officials at Disney, which is beginning to make a feature film.
“This is the craziest thing that has ever happened to us,” Sarah says. “There is nothing even to compare to it. I can’t believe it has been 10 months.”
COVID-19 suspended the NHL season and life has mostly returned to normal for the Ayres’s.
“The brakes went on,” Sarah says. “Things went from crazy to a sudden halt.”
Although COVID-19 has slowed things down, David continues to get requests for personal appearances, and fans send items to his home for him to sign. “It’s a little out of our comfort zone,” Sarah says. “It’s not like we don’t feel worthy, but it is a lot to take in.”
They are a normal suburban couple that fortune shined upon and are trying to make the most of it. They have been married for three years and David has since adopted Sarah’s three children, ages 10 to 16.
He has given up his job as a facility-operations manager and occasional Zamboni driver at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto (at the former Maple Leaf Gardens), and now works for a company that makes ice for hockey rinks. Ayres, who played minor hockey as a youth, plans to return as emergency backup goalie this season – if the Leafs play at Scotiabank – and says he feels more confident now if he gets to play again.
He spends most of his leisure time on charity work, and was recently honoured for helping to raise nearly $100,000 during the pandemic for the Kidney Foundation of Canada. He had his transplant in 2004, with his mother as the donor.
“It has given me a platform to do good things,” he says.
Before COVID and everyone having to wear a mask, people recognized him. And Sarah, everywhere they went. Now, until at least the next NHL season, they will return to anonymity.