After both James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were forced to leave the game with injuries before the second period was over, the Hurricanes turned to the 42-year-old Ayres as their netminder for the remainder of the game.
In the past, Ayres has backed up both the Marlies and Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League, but tonight was his first time stepping into the NHL spotlight.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said of being around the NHL environment during a 2015 interview with Sportsnet. “I’ve been with a lot of these guys since they came through the Marlies’ system. They all know me pretty well. They always treat me like one of the guys, been so great to me.”
But Ayres is no stranger to the crease. He grew up a goaltender, as did his father, Bob, and brother, Chris. As a kid, he played rep hockey in Whitby and attended junior camps.
For the last eight years, he’s filled in when needed for the Maple Leafs and the Marlies, and spent the last three waiting in the wings at Scotiabank Arena as an emergency goalie — just in case.
“I said to Kyle Dubas, ‘Thanks for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’” Ayres said during that 2015 interview, “and he said, ‘You never know man. If we’re in a crunch again, I’m gonna give you a call.’ If for some strange reason it does, I would jump all over it.”
Saturday proved to be exactly the kind of strange situation he’d spent all those years waiting for.
Getting to this night was no easy journey, though.
As is the case with many young hockey players, the grind from minors to pros took its toll, he found himself burnt out on playing, and decided to move on.
Then, in 2004, he suffered a major setback when he needed a kidney transplant.
The life-changing moment is etched not only in his memory, but on his arm as well, with a tattoo in the form of a memorial ribbon.
“He [Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas] used to say to me, ‘Trust me, you’re going to get into a game some day,’” Ayres said.
Dubas, it turned out, could not have been more right.
Not only did Ayres make his first big-league appearance, he made his first save, too, and backstopped the Hurricanes to a shocking 6-3 win.
— with files from the Canadian Press.