A 42-year-old goaltender who practices with the Maple Leafs, beat them on Saturday night in their own arena.
David Ayres, who used to drive the Zamboni at Toronto Marlies games and also practices with them, was pressed into service as an emergency goaltender and made eight saves in the Carolina Hurricanes’ 6-3 victory at Scotiabank Arena.
Ayres is the first emergency net-minder to be credited with a victory in NHL history. He wore a Marlies face mask, blue and white goalie pads, mitt and blocker, and a Leafs T-shirt beneath the Carolina sweater he quickly threw on before entering the game after injuries sidelined both of Carolina’s goalies.
At the end of the game, after the Leafs were unable to put a puck by him in the third period, Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe stormed off the bench as Ayres was mobbed by teammates near his net. He was chosen the first star and skated out to cheers from fans.
Ayres was hanging out in a room used by media at the arena when he got a text message telling him he had to play. He wasn’t watching the game, so he had no idea what was going on.
Each home team must provide an emergency goaltender, but they are rarely ever called upon. Ayres signed an amateur tryout agreement before the start of the game.
He suited up quickly and skated out to play with 8:41 remaining in the second period and Carolina ahead 4-1. He gave up two quick goals to John Tavares and Pierre Engvall and the Hurricanes headed to the visitors’ dressing room at the break with their lead cut to 4-3.
It looked as though the rest of the night could be a romp for the Leafs. Under the circumstances it should have been.
“I was nervous the whole second period,” Ayres, who had a kidney transplant 15 years ago, said afterward, punctuating every sentence with giddy laughter. "I was ready to stop the puck but couldn’t do it on the first two shots to save my life.
“During the intermission I told the guys in the third I’d be ready to go.”
I was nervous the whole second period— David Ayres
The building operations manager at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto, Ayres grew up in Whitby and played goalie as a youth and attended several junior camps before giving up hope that he would ever play professionally.
He has practiced for nearly a decade with both the Marlies and Maple Leafs but the closest he had come to playing was sitting on the bench once during an AHL game.
Little did he know he would star in a Saturday night game televised from coast to coast on Hockey Night in Canada.
“This is unreal,” Ayres said afterward as he stood surrounded by newsmen and women. “It is hard for me to put into words.”
Three of his eight saves came against Auston Matthews. He stopped a wrist shot by Kyle Clifford a second before the horn sounded at the end of the game
“I am sure this is something he will never forget, and we won’t either,” Carolina winger Warren Foegele said. “All credit to David. What a moment for him. The first time he made a save we all went crazy on the bench.”
Ayres was forced into action in the second period after Clifford steamrollled Petr Mrazek when he wandered far out of the net to play a puck.
Players from both teams stood and watched as trainers tended to Mrazek on the ice. After a lengthy delay, he skated off very slowly, bent at the waist and with head down.
Mrazek had replaced starter James Reimer when he was injured in a collision in Carolina’s net with Zach Hyman in the first period.
Although he had a shaky start, Carolina players tapped him on the butt for a job well done as he skated off at the second intermission to join them in the Hurricanes dressing room.
“I just can’t imagine making this walk and how nervous he would be,” Kelly Hrudey, the former NHL goaltender and an analyst for Sportsnet told the audience as the broadcast showed Ayres making his way anxiously from the dressing room to the ice to enter the game.
“He knows he is totally out of his element. He even turns the wrong way, like what end am I going to? The [Carolina] players on the bench are laughing. But Rod Brind’Amour doesn’t find this funny.”
During the break between the second and third periods, Brind’Amour, the Carolina coach, gave Ayres a pep talk.
“I told him, ‘Stop the puck, buddy. You are going to have to make a save or two’ and that’s what happened,’" Brind’Amour said. “It is special to be part of something like this.”
I told him, ‘Stop the puck, buddy. You are going to have to make a save or two’ and that’s what happened— Rod Brind’Amour
The Hurricanes locked down their defence and played keep-away for the final 20 minutes. Fans booed as Toronto failed to score on a power play in the third period and jeered the Maple Leafs over the final minute.
The loss was embarrassing for Toronto, which was outshot 47-25 by an opponent playing the second game in as many days. Carolina lost at home on Friday to the New York Rangers.
“They didn’t even need a goalie the way we played,” Keefe said.
“It feels terrible to be on our end of it, but I am really happy for him."
Frederik Andersen made 41 saves for the Maple Leafs in an uneven performance after getting a shutout against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday. Carolina scored four times in the second period, with three goals coming in less than three minutes.
Ayres entered the Carolina locker room afterward and the cheers within it could be heard echoing down the hallway outside of it. Hurricanes players doused him with water as he entered.
“I got a shower before my shower,” he said. “The thing I will remember most is how great those guys were to me.”
He is the oldest goaltender in league history to win his debut game.
Not everyone was delighted by the circumstances that led to Ayres’ big night.
Brian Burke, an analyst for Sportsnet, said on Hockey Night In Canada that the league should look at quality standards for emergency backup goaltenders.
“I’m sure the league has already received a call,” Burke said between periods of the Boston-Vancouver game. “This is bizarre. You can’t tell me that’s a quality emergency backup goalie, that they can’t get a better guy.
“This guy had the game of his life and good for him. But this is embarrassing to the National Hockey League. … There’s got to be a hundred goalies within 50 miles of the GTA who play USports or played in the CHL or OHL … so you’re not putting in a 42-year-old who drives a Zamboni.”
Ayres said he planned to go home after the game, watch a few replays and go to bed by midnight. He was planning to participate in the Maple Leafs practice on Sunday, but after the game, practice was cancelled.