‘The process works’: NHL opts not to crush EBUG dreams at GM meetings

Kyle Bukauskas, Eric Francis, and Elliotte Friedman on popular topics of discussion on the first day of NHL General Manager meetings in Florida this week.

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Coming to an NHL city near you – NHL tryouts.

Don’t be surprised if sometime next fall there are open auditions for amateur goaltenders to be added to the list of emergency backups dreaming of becoming the next David Ayres.

Call it Canadian Idol – EBUG edition:

No messy draft process or contract negotiations necessary – just get the go-ahead to show up with your gear and a dream.

The opening day of the NHL’s general manager meetings wrapped up Monday with word that after extensive discussion on the league’s emergency backup goalie system, there is still a very real chance the best story of the NHL season could be told again.

The EBUG procedures will not be changed.

“Every team now has got people that are available to perform and do well, so I don’t think there’s any need,” said Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon, whose club stood to lose ground on Toronto had the Maple Leafs lit up Ayres and come back to win.

“We were nervous, very nervous, but it turned out that it didn’t affect anything. The better team won that game in reality. It happened to us three years ago, and the (two) times it’s happened in 50 years, do you change the whole thing? I think we’ve addressed it in the last few years having goaltenders ready in the building, whereas before we had to find somebody or put your goaltending coach in. I think we did a good job fixing it and it turned out for the better.”

The league made changes to the EBUG protocol in 2015 after Roberto Luongo took a puck in the head and left for a scan at the hospital, only to return to action for backup Al Montoya, who was injured in relief. As Panthers goalie coach Robb Tallas dressed to play, Luongo returned despite being banged up, prompting the league to find better alternatives.

Anyone with pro experience, or employees of teams, were then prohibited from filling in, opening the door for a system in which one amateur goalie is to be made available for either team at every game.

Teams must register those goalies with the league based on whatever criteria they choose. There are currently 136 EBUGs registered, as some teams have more than others.

“Some places have tryouts,” said Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

“I think in L.A. they had lots of applicants and whittled it down to 30 and had actual tryouts. Fortunately, in a market like Winnipeg, we have a lot of former college and university players. It’s come a long way and has served its purpose. The general feel is we’ve come a long way from where we were a couple of years ago when we didn’t have anyone in the room or the building.”

Ayres, a 42-year-old rink manager and Leafs practice goalie, gained international attention on Feb. 22 when he filled in for both of the Carolina Hurricanes’ injured netminder midway through the second period of a Hockey Night in Canada game against the Leafs. The kidney transplant recipient allowed two goals on his first three shots, allowing the Leafs to tie it 3-3, before settling down in the third period to stop all eight shots in a 6-3 win.

“I called (Hurricanes GM) Don Waddell in the second intermission and said, ‘can’t one of those two guys please come back?’” said NHL vice-president Colin Campbell with a laugh.

“As it turned out, it was a good human interest story and it worked out. I think the process works.”

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Campbell said the league immediately contacted game officials that night to remind them that if Ayres was injured and couldn’t continue the only options left were for a team to dress one of its players as a goalie, or simply play with six skaters.

Ayres signed an amateur tryout contract before entering the game and wasn’t paid for his efforts. He was allowed to keep his jersey. He spent the next week doing the TV and radio talk show circuit around North America and had his stick put in the Hockey Hall of Fame as the oldest player ever to win his NHL debut.

His moment in the spotlight came on the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice.

“I think everyone recognized it was a great story for the league,” said NHL executive vice-president of communications Gary Meagher.

“I know there has been some coverage that we were going to take the fun out, and there was never any discussion of that. Everyone recognized the coverage and how positive it was. It’s also happened just twice.”

The only other EBUG appearance came in 2018 when the Chicago Blackhawks Scott Foster also became a household name.

The GM meetings continue Tuesday and Wednesday.

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