The NHL season was paused on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. During the break in the action, NHL.com writers will each look back at his or her favorite memory of the season so far. Today, staff writer Mike Zeisberger writes about David Ayres' magical journey from emergency backup to NHL goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22.
David Ayres walked out of the rink with a case of beer in one hand and his equipment bag in the other on the night of Feb. 22, like so many pickup league players do every week.
Only this time, the rink was Scotiabank Arena and the league was the NHL. And for the 42-year-old, he just lived the dream that every kid who's ever laced up a pair of skates has shared: playing in an NHL game.
Fifteen years earlier, the aspiring NHL goalie had a kidney transplant, with his mom, Mary, as his donor. His career was secondary. He was just glad to be alive.
"I never thought I'd play hockey again at that moment," Ayres said. "To go from that to what happened tonight is just unbelievable, unreal."
Not just for him, but for all of us in the building and watching on TV. Indeed, this truly was hockey's version of a Cinderella story.
James Reimer was the starting goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Toronto Maple Leafs but left at 6:10 of the first period with a lower-body injury. Petr Mrazek replaced Reimer and was flattened by Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford at 11:19 of the second period and had to be helped to the locker room.
"I wasn't sure what was going to happen," Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said. "I mean, I've been around the game a long time, but this was a new one … I wasn't sure if there was another goalie in the building ready to go."
Ayres was. The maintenance operations manager at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (formerly Maple Leaf Gardens), Ayres spent eight years as the practice goalie for Toronto of the American Hockey League and the past three for the Maple Leafs. He'd also occasionally drive the ice resurfacing machine at Marlies games, and said he's been the emergency backup goalie at Scotiabank Arena for more than half the NHL games there the past two seasons.
But he never got the call to play in a game. Until now.
He entered with Carolina ahead 3-1. With the Hurricanes up 4-1, Ayres allowed goals to John Tavares and Pierre Engvall on the first two shots against him. He shut the door after that, saving the next eight shots he faced in Carolina's 6-3 victory to become the first EBUG to record a win in NHL history.
Video: CAR@TOR: Ayres discusses appearing in first NHL game
The Hurricanes went into the winning locker room laughing, cheering loudly and chanting "Dave! Dave! Dave!" Ayres was the last to leave the ice but was stopped halfway up the tunnel.
"They told me I had to go back out there because I was the first star," he said. "I'll take it."
When he did get to the locker room, he was doused with sprays of water by his new teammates.
"I wish it had been champagne, but we didn't have any," Staal said. "What an unreal story."
Ayres became the oldest goalie (42 years, 194 days) to win his NHL regular-season debut, and became an overnight sensation. The Hockey Hall of Fame was given his game-used goal stick.
The Hurricanes worked with him to make a donation to a kidney foundation. There were TV appearances on "The Today Show" and "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."
On Feb. 25, Gov. Roy Cooper declared Ayres, a Canadian citizen, an honorary citizen of North Carolina. The city of Raleigh declared Feb. 25 "David Ayres Day."
"It's been a whirlwind," he said.
Video: Emergency goalie David Ayres takes media tour in NYC
One of the things I most remember from that night is receiving a text from my buddy Ian McCrae while I was packing up to leave the building. Ian plays recreational hockey in Whitby, Ayres' hometown.
"The Carolina goalie also filled in with my beer league team on Thursday nights," McRae wrote. "If it wasn't for my lazy defensive efforts he wouldn't be as good as he is."
From beer leagues to "Hockey Night in Canada." It doesn't get much better than that.