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Hurricanes emergency goalie Ayres uses newfound fame for good cause

Spreads story of kidney transplant during media blitz

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When the doors opened for the Carolina Hurricanes game against the Dallas Stars at PNC Arena on Tuesday, fans rushed to Section 108 to meet emergency backup goalie and media darling David Ayres. The line for autographs stretched to Section 112.

Many had white T-shirts with "C-A-N-E-S" on the front and Ayres' name and No. 90 on the back, replicas of the jersey the 42-year-old wore while stopping eight of 10 shots in a 6-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday, becoming the oldest goalie to win his NHL debut and the first emergency backup to win an NHL game.

But first in line was a woman in a Hurricanes hat and a green "Donor" T-shirt.

Lauren Figge is a Hurricanes season-ticket holder. She was watching on TV when Carolina lost not one but two goalies to injury and Ayres had to play in the second period in Toronto.

How could you not root for the guy? He was a former ice resurfacing machine driver. He was manager of operations at Mattamy Athletic Centre, the former Maple Leaf Gardens. He was the practice goalie for Toronto of the American Hockey League for eight seasons and the Maple Leafs for the past three. Now he was getting a chance to play in an NHL game.

Then, in the third period, Figge heard Hurricanes color analyst Tripp Tracy say Ayres was the recipient of a kidney transplant from his mother in 2004, the same year she donated a kidney to her mother. Figge has run three marathons since and is a nurse transplant coordinator at the University of North Carolina Kidney Center.

"The whole family was standing on the couch," Figge said. "When we heard he was a kidney recipient, we absolutely went nuts."

Video: Emergency goalie David Ayres takes media tour in NYC

This isn't just a good story. It's a story of good -- how Ayres handled his moment and the media blitz to follow, how people treated him and his wife from the stands to the locker room, how it all transcended hockey.

How many of us have dreamed of coming out of the stands to play our favorite pro sport? Well, how many of us could actually do it, and then how many of us would turn our 72 hours of fame into something with deeper meaning?

"That's one of the biggest things about this kind of whole media thing that I really wanted to push home, is that it's not necessarily about on the ice and what happened during that game, because if I didn't have a transplant, I never would have got to that game," Ayres said. "It's a great platform just to get it out there, for everyone to realize that you can still do whatever you want to do."

A portion of the proceeds from the Ayres T-shirts will go to a kidney foundation of his choosing. At the game Tuesday, $1 for each $5 Storm Brew sold went to the National Kidney Foundation, which set up a table in the concourse to raise awareness.

"We are here inspired by him," said Katey Cipriani, the community outreach director for the National Kidney Foundation of North Carolina. "It's just an amazing story to show that even though you have this disease, look what you can still do."

Figge had Ayres autograph a "DONATE LIFE" sign to hang in her office.

"Having this moment to shine for himself, and the fact that he then reflects it back on kidney transplant, is phenomenal," Figge said. "It makes him an angel and a hero. It really does."

 * * * * *

Ayres didn't set out to be an angel or a hero. He has spent three seasons as the emergency backup goalie at Scotiabank Arena. The biggest benefit was likely to be standing in a suit to watch Maple Leafs games with his wife, Sarah, in Section 317.

Three times he had to dress for a game when a goalie went down, but never got to sit on the bench, let alone play. The first couple of times he was unsure if he would be able to handle playing or if he really wanted to. Even though he faced NHL players in practice, a real game was a real game.

Eventually, though, he wanted to try.

"I said, 'It would be great if I could actually get in there,' " Ayres said. " 'I'm confident in myself that I could go in there and not kind of make a fool of myself and I could play.' "

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

His moment came Saturday. After Hurricanes starter James Reimer left with a lower-body injury at 6:10 of the first period, he had to go downstairs just in case. After Hurricanes backup Petr Mrazek left with a head injury with 8:41 left in the second, he had to put a Carolina jersey over his Toronto gear and play.

Sarah was still in Section 317.

"It was like an eternity watching guys just standing on the ice," she said. "Mrazek had already gone off, and I'm thinking, 'OK, what's going on? Like, is Reimer coming back, or what's happening?' It felt like forever for him to get on the ice, and then he stepped on. I actually grabbed the guy who I didn't know beside me and screamed, 'That's my husband!' "

This is where the story starts to get good. Ayres gave up two goals on two shots. The fans cheered, because the Maple Leafs cut the Hurricanes' lead from 4-1 to 4-3, but they also apologized to Sarah.

"They were like, 'Sorry. Sorry,' " she said. "I'm like, 'No, it's OK. He'll be fine.' "

He was, thanks in part to his new teammates.

"I just kind of looked up at the scoreboard, and I just said to myself, 'You need to make a save here. You can't go out and embarrass yourself like this,' " he said. "And then a couple of players come to me and they say, 'Don't worry about it. Let in 10 goals. We don't care. Just go out there and have a lot of fun with it.' "

Sarah received three beers from fans but drank about a half of one because she didn't want to miss anything while in the restroom. An usher invited her to move down and sit in an empty seat.

The Hurricanes shut down the Maple Leafs, and Ayres shut them out in the third period, making one particularly memorable save on center Auston Matthews, who is second in the NHL with 43 goals. Two days earlier, Ayres and Matthews had done a video shoot together.

"He had to shoot low blocker," Ayres said. "The first three shots, I stopped all three. He said, 'Come on, Dave. Like, let one in. I've got to score for the commercial.' So when he came down, I knew he was going to short-side blocker on me."

Ayres was selected as the game's first star. Even though the Maple Leafs lost, fans stayed to give the opposing goalie a standing ovation. Sarah was on the phone with her mother.

"I was screaming," she said. "I just know I was probably the loudest one in that building."

By now you've seen the video of the postgame celebration -- the players dumping water on Ayres, coach Rod Brind'Amour praising him in a speech. By now you've heard of the bottle of wine Brind'Amour gave him, of the Hockey Hall of Fame collecting his stick.

What you didn't see was the case of beer Ayres' teammates gave him or the goalie stick from Reimer, signed, "Thanks for holding down the fort." What you didn't see was Sarah waiting for him for more than an hour while he did interviews, then finding him in the hallway, showered, back in his suit, but still flushed and sweaty.

"I think it was the longest, hardest hug that we've had," she said.

She helped him lug his pads back to their truck for the ride home.

* * * * *

Ayres slept about two hours Saturday night. He was back on the ice at the Maple Leafs practice rink Sunday, taking shots from a couple of the guys he had defeated hours earlier. Maple Leafs forward William Nylander gave him a hug.

Meanwhile, media requests started pouring in from outlets big and small across North America, not to mention proposals for books and movies. The volume was so overwhelming the NHL and the Hurricanes coordinated a media tour. Ayres doesn't have an agent.

"Not yet," he said.

Ayres flew to New York on Sunday, arrived about 10 p.m. and slept about four hours. His first radio interview was at 6 a.m. on Monday. The car to the "TODAY" show was at 6:40. He went from interview to interview to interview, doing interviews between interviews, live. At one point, he was on the phone with "Golic and Wingo" from ESPN while in a chair getting his makeup done for "Fox & Friends." He hung up as he walked on stage.

"You don't really even think about it at the time," Ayres said. "It was just so bang-bang. It's just one to the next, one to the next, and you don't really get a chance to even think about what you're doing. I had to ask a couple times, 'Who am I talking to now?' "

Ayres was supposed to fly to Raleigh about 3 p.m. But the "Late Show with Stephen Colbert" called and offered him an opportunity to appear. He seized it, even though it meant rehearsing, performing and flying to Raleigh about 10 p.m.

Tweet from @colbertlateshow: When @StephenAtHome and @JonBatiste went down with an injury, @Canes emergency goalie David Ayres saved the day! #LSSC

He ended up on the same plane with defenseman Brady Skjei, whom the Hurricanes had acquired from the New York Rangers earlier in the day before the NHL Trade Deadline. When they arrived in Raleigh, a local TV crew was waiting on the way to baggage claim.

"I kind of ducked my head and walked past," Skjei said. "They didn't want anything to do with me. They were going right for Ayres."

Ayres did another round of interviews in Raleigh on Tuesday, which Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin declared "David Ayres Day". North Carolina governor Roy Cooper proclaimed Ayres an honorary North Carolinian.

This is where the story starts to do good. Ayres could have made this all about himself. He could have been blinded by the bright lights. He didn't and wasn't. Somehow, amid all of it, he saw a bigger picture.

"Not every interviewer knew that he was a kidney recipient, so he made it a point to bring up that he was a kidney recipient, because that's what he wanted everyone to know about him," said Pace Sagester, the Hurricanes director of communications and team services, who escorted him in New York. "He wanted to use his platform to inspire other kidney recipients."

While Ayres spoke to Tracy and play-by-play announcer John Forslund on the Hurricanes TV broadcast before the game, they wore orange kidney-shaped lapel pins from the National Kidney Foundation.

Video: DAL@CAR: David Ayres rings the storm siren in Raleigh

Ayres sounded the siren as the Hurricanes took the ice, then watched the game with Sarah -- in a suite instead of standing room this time. When he was featured on the video board during the game, his kidney transplant was part of the story.

"He did so many interviews," Sagester said. "Every single one, he just had a good perspective on the opportunity that he had to make a difference and do some good, not just be famous."

Ayres' 72 hours of fame are over now. He will be back at work as usual Thursday morning.

But he will be the emergency goalie at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday when the Maple Leafs play the Vancouver Canucks (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN360, SNO, SNW, SNP, NHL.TV), and his story will keep doing good, no matter what happens next.

He had his kidney transplant at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. He was already committed to doing some speaking for the St. Michael's Foundation, but since his win, he has been asked to do another engagement.

He has a lot to say, especially to those who most need to hear it.

"I know a lot of people fall into maybe even a depressed state or so on, and I fell into that too when I had my kidney transplant," he said. "I thought, 'No hockey. What am I going to go into? This is kind of a shock to me.'

"If I can speak to anybody and help turn someone around or give them some kind of positive motivation, I'm all for it."

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