For three years, David Ayres attended Maple Leafs home games as an emergency goaltender. Three times he was asked to dress, but never played.
He was startled when summoned onto the ice last Saturday and feared a joke was being played.
“It was a little bit of a shock, but who wouldn’t want to do it?” he asks.
Pressed into service after both of the Carolina Hurricanes’ netminders were injured, the 42-year-old who had a kidney transplant in 2004 got to live his lifelong dream.
Watching from her usual perch in the top left corner of Section 317 at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, his wife, Sarah, was both worried and excited for him.
“When he stepped on the ice, I actually grabbed the guy beside me, who I didn’t know, and screamed, ‘That’s my husband!’ ” she says.
It kicked off a week they will never forget.
Ayres occasionally practises with the Maple Leafs and their AHL affiliate, the Marlies. After entering Saturday’s game midway through the second period, he made eight saves and helped the Hurricanes secure a 6-3 victory over Toronto. In doing so, he became the first emergency backup to win in the NHL.
When he stepped on the ice, I actually grabbed the guy beside me, who I didn’t know, and screamed, ‘That’s my husband!’— Sarah Ayres
Nothing’s been the same since. In a short few days, Ayres has gone from an ordinary Joe who coaches a Bantam hockey team in Whitby, Ont., to a celebrity chauffeured around Manhattan in a limousine.
Summoned to New York on Monday, David appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Fox & Friends, CNN and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Before he and Sarah could fly they had to sort out an emergency passport for her, and call in help from family to look after their daughter, aged 15, and sons, aged 14 and 9.
At the beginning of The Late Show, as the host pretended to pull a hamstring, Ayres dashed onto stage wearing his Hurricanes sweater and shouted, ‘Don’t worry, Stephen, I got you!”
Later, he took a seat at the piano used by The Late Show’s music director, Jon Batiste, and pounded on the keys wearing goalie mitts.
On Wednesday, James Corden called him, and they talked for 20 minutes. David had one earbud in his ear and Sarah had the other in hers.
“Since I had my transplant, I realize how precious life can be,” he says. “I have learned not to take myself too seriously.”
He passed out at Thanksgiving dinner at his mother’s house in 2003 when his blood pressure soared. A while later, at a tryout for the Federal Hockey League, his feet swelled so badly he couldn’t put on his skates.
He went to a hospital and within hours was told he needed a new kidney.
“I asked the doctors, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” he says. “I am always ready for the next thing.”
In between television appearances in New York, he conducted dozens of interviews, had a private audience with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and went for a skate on the rink at Rockefeller Center.
“I went from one thing to the other with people pulling me all over the place like a leaf,” he says. “It was a lot of fun, though.”
Late Monday, he and Sarah flew to North Carolina, where Tuesday was David Ayres Day in Raleigh. Together, the couple presided over a half-hour news conference arranged by the Hurricanes at PNC Arena. To put that into perspective, an average post-game interrogation of an NHL head coach lasts maybe five minutes.
“They treated us like rock stars,” Sarah says.
It’s a lot for a fellow who calls himself a “normal guy” to experience without becoming overwhelmed.
“I was ready for it on Tuesday after getting bombarded in New York a day before,” Ayres says. There is charm in his wide-eyed excitement. “It isn’t something I would want to do every day. It is definitely not me. I’m not really that outgoing. I am fairly quiet.”
The Hurricanes are peddling T-shirts with his name across the back at the arena gift store. They offered him royalties, but Ayres instead asked the team to turn proceeds over to a local kidney-support group.
“The biggest thing about me making eight saves is that I never would have been there if I didn’t have a transplant,” he says.
Later that night, he cranked the handle on the siren that is used to whip Carolina fans into a frenzy in the arena before the game. The team also gave him a video tribute during the first intermission, and he and Sarah watched the game between the Hurricanes and Dallas Stars from the owner’s box.
“This is definitely something you never think is going to happen to you,” Ayres says.
He has practised with the Marlies for eight years and for three with the Maple Leafs. At times, he will be on the ice with one for 90 minutes, and then join the other for another 90 minutes. Then he goes to his full-time job as the building-operations director at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto.
Five years ago, he drove a Zamboni for the Marlies and every now and then he still does at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, the top floors of the former Maple Leaf Gardens.
“Some people think, ‘Well, he used to drive a Zamboni,’ so it’s like they pulled me off a Zamboni, threw equipment on me and threw me out there and said, Good luck,” he says. “But that wasn’t the case.”
This is definitely something you never think is going to happen to you— David Ayres
Ayres said the Feb. 22 game was the 25th this season in which he has been the emergency goalie on call at Scotiabank Arena. The NHL requires each home team to provide one in case both goaltenders on either team are knocked out of the lineup.
He was the emergency standby at all Maple Leafs home games last year and 25 to 30 the year before.
Until a week ago, he had only dressed once this season when Frederik Andersen was hurt, and last year twice when injury and illness sidelined Detroit’s Jonathan Bernier and Chicago’s Corey Crawford.
“The first couple of times I got dressed I was kind of unsure if I could handle it,” Ayres says. “This was the fourth time, and I was confident I could go in and not make a fool of myself. I was excited to play.
“If only people knew all of the hard work that has gone into this.”
He entered midway through the second period with Carolina holding a 4-1 lead and allowed goals to Toronto captain John Tavares and Pierre Engvall on the first two shots he faced.
“On the first one, I was screened and kind of guessed where [Tavares] was going based on where he normally scores on me at practice,” Ayres said. “He fooled me a little bit. On the second, I didn’t really have much of a chance. It deflected off one of [Carolina defenceman] Jake Gardiner’s shin pads and got by me.”
As Hurricanes players told him to calm down and enjoy the moment, he looked up around the arena.
“I took a deep breath and soaked it all in,” Ayres says. “I told myself to relax, calm down, and just have fun with it.”
He held the Maple Leafs without a goal the rest of the way, and was chosen the first star of the game. He was on his way to Carolina’s dressing room when called back onto the ice. Of all that’s happened, Sarah says that was the most emotional moment for her. They have been married 2 1/2 years.
If only people knew all of the hard work that has gone into this— David Ayres
“The place was still almost full,” David says. “I was surprised. Toronto fans can be a little harsh at times but they stuck around for me and I am so appreciative of that. The ovation I got was fantastic. They were going crazy.”
By the time the game was over, he received 160 text messages, including one from Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell and another from Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins, a former Marlies coach.
He was interviewed by Hockey Night In Canada and then did a post-game scrum with reporters. It was quite a while before he and Sarah could exchange a hug beneath the arena.
On Friday, after arriving back in Toronto at midnight, he was at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He turned over his goalie stick – a blue and silver Bauer Supreme with white tape, tagged with its associated accomplishment, and it was added to the collection. Ayres put it in the case himself, wearing the hall’s trademark white gloves. He left them on for the rest of his news conference.
“I’m extremely honoured,” he says. “I didn’t expect all this to happen. I expected to go on the ice and play a couple minutes and get off and maybe do one or two interviews and go on with my life. It’s blown up more that I could ever imagine.”
A handful of film and television producers in Los Angeles have reached out and told him they are interested in his story. Hospitals in Buffalo, Houston and Raleigh have invited him to share his story. He’s getting his own Upper Deck hockey card.
After the Hall of Fame appearance Friday, he imagined things might return to normal. He planned to go see his niece play hockey in the afternoon, and catch up on all his messages.
On Saturday night, Ayres will be back at Scotiabank Arena. He is the emergency backup for Toronto and the Vancouver Canucks.
“If it ever happens again I won’t be as nervous,” he says. “Now I know what I will be up against in a game situation. The thing about last week is that I didn’t play very well. Nerves took my feet out from underneath me in the second period.
“I’ll be ready to go this time.”