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The Legend of Dave Ayres

From receiving a kidney transplant to becoming an unlikely hero for the Canes, this is Ayres' story

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

In 2004, Dave Ayres, a goaltender toiling around in low-level minor hockey and various pro-am camps, received a kidney transplant from his mother.

He figured that was the end of the road for his hockey playing career.

A little more than 15 years later, at 42 years of age, Ayres stood in the hallway of Toronto's Scotiabank Arena with an iconic Hockey Night in Canada towel draped around his neck. In emergency relief, he had just recorded eight saves, the win and first-star honors in his National Hockey League debut with the Carolina Hurricanes.

"Do you believe in miracles?" Al Michaels asked on Feb. 22, 1980. "Yes!"

Two unbelievable hockey stories separated by exactly 40 years, both tales of the ordinary accomplishing the extraordinary.

"Right now, it's kind of hard to put into words," Ayres managed through a smile that never left his face.

On any other Saturday night in February, you probably would have found Ayres helping coach local youth hockey or on site at Mattamy Athletic Centre, the old Maple Leaf Gardens, where he currently works as the building's operations manager. (Zamboni driving, by the way, doesn't exactly fall under that job description, though he did do that while working at the then Ricoh Coliseum, home of the American League's Toronto Marlies, years prior.)

A third practice goalie for the Maple Leafs and Marlies, Ayres is also one of the emergency goaltenders in Toronto available for the nuclear situation in which the Hurricanes found themselves on Saturday night.

"I didn't actually think I'd get in the net," said Ayres, who also dressed as the emergency back-up for the Charlotte Checkers in Toronto just a few weeks ago. "My wife a bunch of times said, 'If you get in, do you think you'll be nervous?' I'm like, 'Nah, I'll be good.'"

About three minutes into the game, Zach Hyman shoved Jaccob Slavin into James Reimer. The two Canes ended up in their own net, seemingly somewhat innocuous at first. Reimer, though, remained on the ice in clear discomfort. Head Athletic Trainer Doug Bennett trotted out to examine Reimer, who was slow to his feet before electing to remain in the game.

Reimer battled his way through the next three minutes of game play, two of which featured a Canes' power play, and only had to make a fairly mundane blocker save. But, at the first extended stoppage of the period, he exited the game.

READ: INSIDE A GOALIE EMERGENCY WITH JASON MUZZATTI

As Petr Mrazek entered the game for the Canes, Ayres got a text message alerting him to get dressed. He left the media area for an auxiliary locker room where he laced up his skates and affixed his leg pads.

There was no television in this locker room, so Ayres pulled up the CBC feed of the game on his phone.

Equipment manager Bob Gorman stitched a makeshift "AYRES" nameplate onto the No. 90 goalie cut jersey that the Canes take to every city, just in case.

Out on the ice, with a little less than nine minutes left in the second period, Mrazek raced out of his crease to track down a loose puck. All six feet, two inches and 211 pounds of Kyle Clifford was also barreling towards the puck. The ensuing collision was brutally violent, and Mrazek took the brunt of the force.

Bennett was back on the ice to check on another goaltender. Mrazek was slow to get up and skate off the ice. Goaltending coach Jason Muzzatti rushed down from the press box to prepare for what was next.

Video: CAR@TOR: David Ayres enters game as emergency goalie

It was showtime for Ayres, who looked the part of a goaltender plucked from relative obscurity and dropped into an unfathomable position. His blue and white gear - from his Marlies mask down to his pants (he was able to add a red shell in the second intermission) and pads - clashed with his red and white Canes sweater.

Without much time to think or prepare or even consider the moment, Ayres was about to be thrust into his NHL debut in a nationally televised game carrying playoff implications. No pressure.

"These guys were so cool. They knew, 'Hey, there's a chance we're going to lose this game because this guy's not an NHL goalie. This isn't his everyday gig.' But I didn't want to let them down," said Ayres, who became the second-oldest player in NHL history, regardless of position, to make his debut. "I know how close it is in the playoff race. I knew I was going to have to battle out there."

Ayres put blade to ice at Scotiabank Arena, and though he didn't expect to be nervous, he was just that. How could you not be?

"The whole second period, I could barely feel my legs," he said.

He got a few stick taps from his new teammates, Brock McGinn warmed him up with a few shots and then it was game time.

The Canes came out of the break with a power play - Clifford was originally given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for charging, but the officials amended his penalty to a two-minute charging minor upon video review - which gave Ayres the chance to survey the game while not immediately seeing high pressure from the Leafs. Late in the power play, Ayres wandered out to the far circle to play the puck behind the net and reverse the flow. The crowd cheered, though they didn't cheer what happened on the ensuing rush: Teuvo Teravainen slipped a shot through Frederik Andresen to give the Canes a 4-1 lead.

The first shot that Ayres faced in his NHL career came off the stick of a guy who had scored 342 goals in the NHL: John Tavares, who snapped a quick shot five hole. All Ayres could do was shake his head.

"I didn't expect Tavares to go low the first shot," he said. "He psyched me out. I thought he was going to go high-blocker on me."

The second shot Ayres faced went in, too, but there wasn't much he could have done about it. A point shot glanced off Jake Gardiner in front of the net and landed on the stick of Pierre Engvall for the tap in.

Perhaps Ayres' confidence got a boost late in the second period when he stoned Auston Matthews, who ranks second in the league in goals this season, on a point-blank scoring chance.

"I was nervous for the whole second period, as you could tell. I couldn't stop a puck if I had to in the second," Ayres laughed. "I told the boys, 'When I come out in the third, I'll be ready to go.'"

The Canes' three-goal lead had, in short order, disintegrated into a one-goal lead, which they were able to take into the intermission. A couple Leafs, including goaltender Frederik Andersen, tapped Ayres on the way off the ice, a showing of mutual respect. A gaggle of Canes waited by the bench for further encouragement and reassurance.

"These guys were awesome," Ayres said. "They said to me, 'Just have fun with it. Don't worry about how many goals go in. Just enjoy it. This is your moment. Have fun with it.'"

Staring adversity square in the face, Brind'Amour was concerned with how he'd rally his team.

But, he didn't have to.

"That's what I'm most proud about: how we handled it," he said. "I was in there in between periods going, 'Well, how is this going to end up?' You try to put on a good face to go in there and talk to them, but they had already handled it. It was a great moment, and I'm glad to be a part of that."

"They came in here saying, 'Let's do it for Dave. Let's get out there and really play hard here in the third,'" Ayres said. "I can't let them down when they do that. I wanted to go out there and give it everything I got until the final buzzer."

Jordan Martinook, back in the lineup after missing the previous seven games with an upper-body injury, sauntered into the hallway before the third period.

"Yeah, Svech! Yeah, Svech! Mother Russia, brother!" he hollered, as is tradition. "For us! For Wally! For Ginner! For Davey!"

Those last two words were a fresh addition, a rallying cry for the team.

Warren Foegele scored his second goal of the game in the first minute of the third period to give the Canes some breathing room. The team with the 42-year-old emergency back-up goaltender then dominated a seemingly befuddled Maple Leafs squad in the final frame of regulation. Toronto managed just seven shots on goal, all of which Ayres turned aside. Hyman was found open in the slot on a Leafs power play about seven minutes into the third period, and Ayres squeezed the puck under his blocker arm, perhaps his best stop of the night.

"We knew coming into the period that we didn't want to back off. Let's be the aggressor," Foegele said. "We were just encouraging him. He just had a big smile over there. You know what? I really have no words for it. What a moment."

Video: CAR@TOR: Ayres makes history as emergency backup

"They helped me out," Ayres said. "They kept the puck away from me, so the least I could do was make three or four saves and help them out."

As the clock hit zero, Ayres snared a game puck from a shot off the stick of Clifford, as fate would have it. That puck was a keeper. Ayres, the oldest goaltender in NHL history to win his debut, was mobbed in the crease by an ecstatic bunch of Canes.

Ayres' curtain call came when he was named first star of the game, a fitting bow on an unforgettable debut. The partial crowd in Toronto gave him a standing ovation, part out of respect, part out of frustrated spite for their own team, part out of sheer disbelief of what they just witnessed.

The Canes, meanwhile, waited for Ayres in the locker room. Once he wrapped his Hockey Night in Canada interview, he walked into the room to a din of cheering and celebratory mayhem. He was immediately showered - figuratively with praise and literally with bottles of water.

Video: Rod Brind'Amour's post game locker room speech.

"I had no idea I was going to get a shower before I got into the shower, but I got one. It was good," he laughed. "These guys are awesome."

It's customary this season for the player of the game, as decided on by Brind'Amour, to have the song of his choosing play following the postgame speech. Ayres, though, was the New Guy and of course had no song at the ready. Massage Therapist Tristan Simmons fittingly cued up Fat Joe and Lil Wayne's "Make It Rain."

"Special moment for all of us in there," Brind'Amour said. "The guys recognizing how special it was for him and making it special. We've got a great group."

Video: CAR@TOR: Ayres discusses appearing in first NHL game

The celebration eventually wound down. Bags and cases were packed away for transfer to the airport. Television lights were switched off. Cameras were no longer rolling. Ayres stood by his locker in the Canes' dressing room, still absorbing it all, chatting with team staff. Suited players filed out for final congratulations and photo opportunities with the stranger-turned-hero.

Parting gifts including a bottle of wine from Brind'Amour, a signed goalie stick from Reimer and a case of Molson. Ayres would also be taking the game puck he snagged and his No. 90 sweater.

"I'll probably hang it up somewhere and look at it every day," he said.

And the memories. Oh, the memories.

"Crazy," Foegele said. "Respect to Davey there, coming in, probably dreams of playing in the National Hockey League. Give him credit. He made some huge saves for us. It was a proud effort from our team."

The memories will last a lifetime. Twenty-eight minutes and 41 seconds of game time. Eight saves, and even a shot on goal. One win. First star.

All of this for a 42-year-old building operations manager, an average Dave who triumphed and, against all odds, was anything but average.

Dave Ayres, the man who more than 15 years years ago didn't think he would ever play hockey again, became an international sensation, unexpectedly living out his dream in the best hockey league in the world.

"That's pretty special. I told the guys after the game, I thanked them because that just gave me an incredible memory," Brind'Amour said. "Just the way that game unfolded, how hard we were playing and then to have that happen. You kind of think, oh well. How is this going to end up? We just dug in and said we're not going to lose this game. For him, what a moment he'll have for the rest of his life. That's incredible. That's why you do this."

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