The Hockey Hall of Fame called Sunday and asked for his goalie stick. The Governor of North Carolina wants to make him an honorary citizen. The Carolina Hurricanes began selling shirts with his name on the back and invited him to their game in Raleigh on Tuesday. He will also be making the rounds on talk shows on Monday as well, including The Today Show on NBC.
One day you drive a Zamboni, the next you are the talk of the sporting world. Alex Ovechkin scored his 700th goal? That’s nice, but did you hear about David Ayres?
He is 42 years old and had a kidney transplant 15 years ago. On Saturday night, he played in goal for Carolina and beat the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. He received cheers usually reserved for millionaires and lived childhood dreams.
“I had the time of my life,” Ayres said.
Imagine that 20 years ago you were a fair baseball player. Now, while at a major-league game, all 10 pitchers on one side get injured and you are summoned from the stands because there is nobody else. And then you end up winning.
It is almost Disney-esque, but in his case not a fairy tale.
In the NHL, the home team must provide an emergency goaltender for use of either team, but they are rarely ever needed. He was lounging in a room used by media at the rink when both Carolina goalies got hurt.
On the night of the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s famous Miracle on Ice victory, Ayres played half the game and made eight saves. In doing so, he became the first emergency goaltender in league history to be credited with a victory and the oldest to make his debut.
At the finish, he was mobbed by the Hurricanes.
“The guys were so pumped up that they came and basically jumped on me,” Ayres said.
As he skated off the ice, his teammates chanted, “Davey! Davey!”
He grew up in Southern Ontario, played minor hockey in his youth, but hasn’t played competitively in years, and when he did bore little resemblance to Martin Brodeur. Yet on Saturday, he stopped Auston Matthews three times and turned away a slap shot on a power play by Zach Hyman.
He was chosen the first star of the game and skated out to cheers.
“I’ve been on this ice many times without fans, but add in fans and it’s amazing," he said.
For years, he has occasionally helped out as a practice goalie for the Maple Leafs and their AHL affiliate in Toronto. He used to drive the Zamboni at Marlies games and still does every now and then at the Mattamy Athletic Centre at Ryerson University, where he works as the building-operations chief.
On Saturday night, Marc-André Piette, a Zamboni driver at the MAC, which is in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, was tuned into the Hockey Night in Canada telecast and stunned by what transpired.
“When I saw him coming in, I was ecstatic, nervous and so happy for the guy,” Piette says. “It was amazing to see him live his dream.”
Ayres’s wife, Sarah, was at Scotiabank Arena and shouting encouragement.
“I am the happiest, proudest woman on the planet because my human got to live out his ultimate dream,” Sarah wrote in a Twitter post. “I’m also surprised I still have a voice.”
Carolina led 4-1 when he entered the game with 8:41 remaining in the second period. 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. The final score was 6-3.
Understanding his jitters, Carolina players did their best to help him relax.
Erik Haula, a left wing, came over to his dressing stall.
“He told me to just enjoy the moment and have fun,” Ayres said. “He told me not to worry about how many goals I give up.”
He stopped seven in the third period as Carolina won the battle between teams vying for a playoff position.
“We just got beat by our own Zamboni driver,” one Maple Leafs fan wrote in a post on Instagram.
Paul Hemming, who grew up in London, Ont., and attended Ryerson in Toronto, directed the telecast for the Hurricanes network and Fox Sports Carolinas. He directed hockey telecasts for TSN for 26 years and for Sportsnet for three before moving to North Carolina two years ago.
He has never seen anything quite like Saturday night.
“It was really a movie that played out in real time on the small screen,” Hemming said. “It was high drama. All the preparation you have done beforehand goes out the window. There is no script."
He has directed games at the World Cup of Hockey and world junior tournaments and six Grey Cups, but none topped what he saw.
“For me, that the was the biggest one. I have never directed a game where the hero is a 42-year-old kidney transplant survivor. The story of the year unfolded before your eyes.”
After the game, Carolina players showered Ayers with water bottles as he went into the dressing room. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour praised both Ayers and his team.
“It’s not often in a game that you get tied to a great memory,” he said. “All you have is the memories you’ve got and you guys just gave me one, you gave each other one. It’s a memory I am going to have forever."