TORONTO – David Ayres has been stepping down into the bowels of Scotiabank Arena on most game nights for three years now, understanding there could be a one-in-a-zillion chance he’d be called into action — but never actually believing the impossible would come to life.
At 42 years of age, a Zamboni driver who helps chip in with coaching duties on a Bantam AA club in Whitby was summoned to throw on his goalie gear as quickly as possible because a team, the Carolina Hurricanes, had no choice but to turn to an old Toronto Maple Leafs fan to help defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As Hurricanes starter James Reimer got knocked out the contest in the first period, Ayres was in his usual post, stuffed in the media room, watching the Hockey Night in Canada feed from his smartphone.
But when Carolina’s backup, Petr Mrazek, raced past the dots in an effort to beat a charging Kyle Clifford to a loose puck, and got bowled over by the Leafs winger, Ayres’ WiFi conked out.
The third man up was in the dark until his phone lit up again, this time with urgent text messages from Maple Leafs scouting director Reid Mitchell: “Get going. Get ready.”
Is this guy playing me right now? I’m going in? Ayres thought. And then: Let’s go!
“F— ME!!!!” tweeted Sarah Ayres, Dave’s wife.
We are all Dave Ayres.
Love the game. Accept that it sped by us. Work a day job. Still hang around rinks, to play for kicks, to coach our kids, to talk puck.
Yet we still wonder what it might feel like to pull an NHL sweater over our heads, stride out in the hockey mecca on a Saturday night to stick taps and live the dream.
Get named first star. Go for a twirl.
Have the boys shower us with water bottles and hoots and hollers and hugs when we enter the dressing room. Crank the music to 11 and leave with a Hockey Night in Canada towel around our necks and a cocktail-party story that sounds like a Disney fantasy.
I am the happiest, proudest woman on the planet because my human got to live out his ultimate dream.
…I’m also surprised I still have a voice. https://t.co/qTglhZypG5
— Sarah Ayres (@35Ayres) February 23, 2020
“I went through a kidney transplant 15 years ago. Never thought I was gonna play hockey again at that moment,” said Ayres, the Maple Leafs’ happy-go-lucky extra-work practice goalie, still riding the high.
“I’m supposed to practice tomorrow at 12:30. I’ll take my game puck with me.”
The score was 3-1 for the visitors midway through the second period when Ayres embarked on his surprise mission to become the eldest goalie to win his NHL debut.
Did the Hurricanes themselves know anything about the guy?
That Ayres had borrowed Marlies goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo’s mask and pads? That he was wearing a Maple Leafs T-shirt under his No. 90 Hurricanes sweater?
That for eight years he’s been showing up whenever the Marlies or Leafs need an extra punching bag between the pipes for skills or development work and how those sessions kept his passion for the game burning? That once he stopped resurfacing the ice at AHL games, he started paying bills by picking up the same gig at Mattamy Athletic Centre, site of the former Maple Leaf Gardens?
“Of course not. I heard he’s David,” Teuvo Teravainen said.
“I didn’t even know if there was going to be a goalie at some point. Like, are we going to play without the goalie? Or what’s going to happen? Memories, I guess.”
When John Tavares beat Ayres five-hole on his first shot — “I didn’t expect Tavares to go low,” Ayres said. “He psyched me out. I thought he was gonna go high blocker on me” — and Pierre Engvall tapped in the second, it felt like only a matter of time for one of the sport’s most dangerous and well-compensated offences to make Ayres look like the civilian he is.
Toronto was granted half a game to feast.
But when Ayres went into the Canes’ room during the second intermission clinging to a 4-3 lead, the players rallied around him.
Erik Haula told Ayres they wouldn’t care if he gave up 10.
“Don’t worry about how many goals go in and just enjoy it,” they said. “This is your moment. Have fun with it.”
Coach Rod Brind’Amour, a hockey lifer, took a minute to gather himself for a situation he’s never been in, but by the time he entered the room, he realized his players had already set the right tone.
“We told him we were gonna go after it in the third. We’re not gonna sit back. We’re gonna try to protect you, but you’re gonna have to make a save or two and get us the win,” Brind’Amour said.
“And that’s exactly what happened. I just love that the way our guys just accepted him, cheered him on. It’s special to be a part of.”
Funny. It was the team without a Zamboni guy to roast who emerged from the second intermission inspired.
Ayres recorded eight consecutive saves; his favourite was squeezing the wickets on an Auston Matthews five-hole attempt. The Hurricanes added insurance strikes from Warren Foegele and Martin Necas, outshout the Leafs 23-10, and out-battled Ayres’ favourite team for every puck, despite playing on the tired half of a back-to-back.
“Give me a couple shots but not too many,” Ayres had politely asked of his teammates. “I kind of blanked them for the rest though.”
The Leafs had good cause to blame themselves.
Mitch Marner described his personal performance as, alternately, “bulls—” and “dogs—.” Matthews leaned back to a familiar theme of lack of effort. Coach Sheldon Keefe thought it was more an absence of execution, particularly from his big guns.
“They didn’t need a goaltender the way the game was going,” said Keefe, who acknowledged Ayres even in embarrassing defeat.
“There’s probably not an emergency goaltender anywhere in pro hockey that has seen as many pro shots as this guy who’s in pretty much every day getting work. It feels terrible given that he’s on the other side today from our end of it. On a personal note, you can’t help but feel good for the guy.”
It was a night no one in the building will forget, and a night those who weren’t might not believe.
But hero Dave Ayres figured he’d treat it like any other post-game — “go home, chill out, maybe watch a couple replays” — with one wonderful, impossible exception.
“Take my jersey with me,” the Zamboni driver smiled. “Probably hang it up somewhere and look at it every day.”