Fifteen years ago, 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 Saturday. "To go from that to what happened tonight is just unbelievable, unreal."
Not only did Ayres play hockey Saturday, he was the winning goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes in a 6-3 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.
Video: CAR@TOR: Ayers makes history as emergency backup
About two hours earlier, Ayres was sitting in the media room as the emergency backup goalie, as he had many times, never thinking he'd actually get into an NHL game, which he never had. Then came a text from Reid Mitchell, the director of scouting for the Maple Leafs, telling him he was needed to play for the Hurricanes.
"Some of the text messages I was getting, I was thinking: 'These guys playing with me right now? I'm going in?' Then I got [Reid's] and it said to go in," Ayres said.
James Reimer started for Carolina but left at 6:10 of the first period with a lower-body injury. Petr Mrazek replaced him and played the next 25:09.
But when Mrazek went out to the top of the face-off circle to try to get to a loose puck, he was flattened by Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford. Mrazek lay on the ice before being helped to the dressing room, leaving the Hurricanes without a healthy goalie and 28:41 left to play.
"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."
Hurricanes forward Teuvo Teravainen wondered if Carolina would have to play with six skaters and no goalie.
"I mean, I wasn't sure if there was another goalie in the building ready to go," Staal said.
Video: CAR@TOR: Ayres discusses appearing in first NHL game
Ayres was ready. Now 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's also occasionally driven the ice resurfacing machine at Marlies games, and said he's been the EBUG at Scotiabank Arena for more than half the NHL games the past two seasons.
But this was the first time he got the call to play, and it didn't start as planned.
Carolina was leading 4-1, but it quickly became 4-3 after he gave up goals to John Tavares and Pierre Engvall on the first two shots he faced.
It wasn't quite like practice.
"I didn't expect Tavares to go low on the first shot, he psyched me out," Ayres said. "I thought he was going to go high blocker on me. And I said, 'If the guy's coming in on me, I think I know where he's going to go.' But in a game situation that goes out the door. They're going to go at whatever you give them."
After the period, several Maple Leafs tapped him on the pads.
"I thought I'd be nervous if it ever happened," Ayres said. "And 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.
"[But] I told the boys in the intermission, 'I'll be ready to go.'"
He was, saving all seven Maple Leafs shots in the third. And with each one, the crowd cheered the native of nearby Whitby, Ontario.
"That was awesome the way they supported me," he said.
Video: Emergency goalie helps Hurricanes defeat Maple Leafs
The Hurricanes players went into the winning dressing 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 dressing room, he was doused by 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."
Down the hallway in the Toronto dressing room, coach Sheldon Keefe was unhappy with the loss but said he felt good for Ayres. Keefe was Marlies coach from 2015 until he replaced Mike Babcock on the Maple Leafs on Nov. 20 and, as such, is very familiar with Ayres.
"He's got great energy, he comes to the rink every day, wants to work and wants to be a part of it," Keefe said. "Whether it's with the Marlies or Leafs, he's always there when you need him. There probably isn't an emergency goalie anywhere in pro hockey who has seen as many pro shots as this guy. He's in every day getting work.
"It feels terrible that at the end of the night, he's on the other side from our end of it, but on a personal note, you can't help but feel pretty darn good for the guy."
The Hurricanes tweeted that they are working with Ayres to make a donation to a kidney foundation, just another special touch on such a special night, which included a tweet from North Carolina governor Roy Cooper that he would make Ayres an honorary member of the state.
"It's pretty special," Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "You know, I told the guys after the game to thank him because that just gave me an incredible memory. ... What a moment for him that he can have the rest of his life. That's incredible.
"That's why you do this."
Ayres made eight saves on 10 shots, was credited with a shot on goal, and got the win. He was seen leaving the arena carrying a case of beer and his equipment inside a Toronto Marlies bag, and had his Hurricanes No. 90 jersey, which he said he'll hang somewhere at home.
"I'm going to look at it every day," he said.
Not bad for a guy who once thought he'd never play hockey again.