David Ayres Q&A: Disney deal, strangers’ smiles and a bottle worth cracking

Emergency backup goalie David Ayres joined Lead Off to revisit his historic first NHL win one year later and explained why most of the game is still a blur to him.

TORONTO – One year after the miracle, David Ayres’s phone is still buzzing with emergencies he needs to solve. They’re just a little less glamourous than springing from the stands to the crease and securing an NHL victory against the very organization that employed him.

Wearing a Marlies T-shirt during our Zoom call, Ayres describes the wildest year of his life as “nonstop.”

In addition to satisfying the endless requests (from Colbert to Corden, Disney to Dangle) that come with being an ordinary guy who accomplished the extraordinary, Ayres’s new day job keeps him involved with the game, albeit at a distance.

Leaving his Zamboni and EBUG life behind, Ayres, 43, now oversees the Toronto district for CIMCO, Canada’s largest industrial refrigeration contractor.

“It’s pretty busy,” Ayres says. “I have to schedule all the maintenance for our mechanics to go out to the indoor and outdoor rinks. Any big parts that need changing, it’s all my job.”

Ayres hurt his knee tending goal for pros training in Oakville and Oshawa during the off-season, and his gear — hanging in a stall behind him during our Zoom — has been dry for months.

“I went too hard too soon. My knee didn’t like it. Getting old sucks, man,” Ayres says. But even when he complains, he smiles. Life is good.

“We have a gym in the garage. (My wife) Sarah and I go work out almost every single night. It doesn’t matter. Nothing is the same as playing hockey, right? You can do whatever you want, but as soon as you get out there and start doing butterflies and trying to do splits, that’s when your body’s like, ‘Uh, nah,’ we’re not doing this anymore.”

Not that there is anything left for Ayres to accomplish. He’s seen the view from the top of the mountain, tasted the sweetest Gatorade.

We caught up with Ayres to discuss his forthcoming biopic, his charity work, and how life has changed one year since Feb. 22, 2020, when a 42-year-old practice goalie shut the door, made history and helped the Carolina Hurricanes defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-3.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Sportsnet: Did you watch the Leafs game (Monday) night? Are you aware of the blown 5-1 lead? Your name was trending again.

David Ayres: I watched until it was 3-1 or something like that. Next thing you know, everybody’s chirping the Leafs because they lost. I saw one guy say something like, “This is worse than losing to the Zamboni guy.” They’re going to use me (as the benchmark). Every time the Leafs lose badly, they’re gonna say something like that.

How often are you reminded of Feb. 22, 2020?

Oh, somebody sends me something every single day. I’m not even joking. Between Sarah or I, we’ve had a request for something every single day of the year. Like, a podcast or an interview or something every day for the last year. There’s been really good ones and some you just can’t do. You have to pick and choose.

Do you ever tire of rehashing the story, or is it fun to keep reliving this dream come true?

It depends on the questions you’re asked. Sometimes it’s a super-generic interview, where all the questions I’ve answered a million times. Some come with different angles, like the kidney transplant angle. I often get, “How did it feel when the first shot went in?” It’s like, “Well, that sucks.” The worst thing I’ve had so far is… Because I signed a movie deal with Disney, I had a bunch of the producers and writers on Zoom calls. Some of the stuff that the non-hockey guys ask you, it’s just like, “You’re working for Disney, man. You should’ve done your research a little bit for that one.” (chuckles) For the most part, they’re great. It was a great night for me, so why would I not be excited to talk about it?

The Disney deal: How quickly did it come about? And what’s the timeline for the movie to hit screens?

When we were in Carolina, I got a call from James Corden. He just wanted to say congrats. He heard about my story, thought it awesome. He let me know he had a production company. No pressure: “If you ever want a movie, let me know.” Then I hooked up with CAA (Creative Artists Agency). They said to me, “You wouldn’t believe the amount of production companies that have come to us already asking to do this film. It’s insane.” They narrowed it down to 24 at one point, and then we narrowed it down to 12. We listened to 12 pitches from all the different people. I still went back to James Corden to talk to him three times. He wanted me to be in the movie: “You’d be a producer and be part of it from start to finish, with the writing and everything.” That’s kinda cool, him wanting me to tell the story and put a little spin on it. I guess his neighbour was a guy who works high up in Disney, and they went for a walk one night. That’s how the whole Disney thing came about. So, we’ll see what happens. A little slow now with COVID, but once we get the ball rolling, it’ll be fine. Once we start writing it, I think they’ll go two years from there.

Very cool. Who would be your dream David Ayres casting?

I don’t think I’ve actually picked one person, but names of actors some of the production companies threw out were like Mark Wahlberg or Ryan Reynolds. Another producer picked Chris Pratt, and he said, “I don’t like hockey.” I’m pretty sure it was him. (laughs) Whoever it is, I’m sure they’ll be great. I’ll get to meet him, hang out and do the whole thing together. It’ll be fun.

Does it feel like a full year has passed since your win?

I look at my equipment — I have a couple stalls here — and it feels like forever since I actually put it on for that game. You get a lot of pictures and stuff coming in, or art that people have made. It’s like, wow, that was so long ago.

How many times have you gone back and watched the game?

I’ve watched it one time on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast and one time on the Carolina broadcast. That was it. From a goalie standpoint, my technique was terrible. When I got two goals scored on me, I just stayed back in my net. I didn’t want to give up too much, so I just stood my ground. The technique wasn’t the greatest. If I had a chance to do it again, I think I’d be a little bit more free. I felt like I was a robot out there. That’s why I don’t really like to watch it. And when I do interviews and stuff like that, I don’t watch those either. I don’t really like to hear my own voice.

I’m the exact same way, minus the NHL hero part.

Sarah will sit beside me and play some clip. As soon as I hear my voice, I’m like, “Turn it off, turn it off! I don’t want to hear it.” I’ll maybe go into the other room if she wants to listen.

Did the EBUG experience change how you view life?

Yes and no. The biggest part for me was having a kidney transplant 16 or so years ago. When I had that, I didn’t think I’d be able to play sports at all. I had no idea what I was gonna be able to do. So being able to reach that level, there was a lot of luck involved in (becoming a practice goalie) for the Marlies organization. But there’s a ton of hard work I’ve put in over the last eight seasons with them. It just lets you know, anything you try in life, you can achieve it. You put a lot of hard work and get a couple lucky bounces here and there, and things will go your way — as long as you stay positive. That’s the one big thing I took away from everything: Just stay positive. Doesn’t matter how old you are. It matters how hard you work, whether it’s playing sports or doing your daily job. You put the effort into it, you’ll get results.

How have you leveraged your accomplishment to raise money for the Kidney Foundation?

I did the emergency fund (with the Kidney Foundation) in April. We raised over $100,000 in three or four weeks. I did a bunch of stuff for the American Kidney Foundation, and we’re able to raise money for that as well. If it wasn’t for me having a kidney transplant, I never would’ve got to do this stuff. I know there’s a bunch of people that have went to the Kidney Foundation since they’ve heard my story and said, “Hey, I didn’t know you guys did this.” And they’ve been able to use the Kidney Foundation as a support system, so that’s been awesome for me.

Describe your relationship like with the Hurricanes.

I talk to guys that work for the organization almost every day, really. I made a lot of friends when I was down there. They ask how things are going. I actually just got a package from them today — more Canes swag. It’s kinda cool. They want me to do a video for the 22nd, so they sent me more swag, which is awesome. They’re such a good organization and really down to earth. Really fun guys. I keep in touch with them.

What sticks out from the aftermath of your victory, the celebration tour?

Going to New York City. I’d never been to New York City. When I went down there, I did a lot of really cool shows — Stephen Colbert, Today Show, Fox, all that stuff. It happens so fast, you don’t even remember it. Then I went to Carolina, then Saskatoon, and then went to Montreal. You don’t get a chance to soak it all in until afterwards. And then you get to realizing, I got to do some pretty cool things. I got to meet some really cool people. And there’s a lot of people that come up and say, “Your story is awesome.” You put a smile on their face. That was the best thing over the last 12 months — the fact that people will tell you where they were when they watched the game, the fact that they were rooting for the Leafs but then once Carolina started winning, they were rooting for me to win. So, it brought a little bit of joy to people. And others, not so much joy, I guess. (laughs)

I remember entering the visitors’ room as you were taking off your gear postgame. You were wearing a Leafs T-shirt underneath your Hurricanes sweater. And you said you’d be heading back to Ford Performance Centre the next morning to work out with the Leafs.

If it wasn’t for the Leafs organization, I never would’ve been able to do the emergency goalie thing. Kyle (Dubas) and Sheldon (Keefe) and those guys brought me along. I spent so many years practising with the Marlies, then they brought me up to Leafs. I wear that Leafs shirt under my gear all the time. Going back to practice the next day, the guys were giving me hugs, saying, “That’s so awesome. Good for you.” They were proud of me. They know I go home with bumps and bruises every day. It’s not fun. You get pucks in the head all day long. Not their fault. They’re ripping pucks at the net, and you’re in the net. They’re still great to me.

Safe to say you still cheer for the Leafs, then?

I got to know them on a friend level. I’m always gonna root for them. I was never a huge Leaf fan growing up, but once you’re part of an organization, you make friends. You’re gonna root for your buddies. They work so hard, and they have an awesome team. They’re gonna rip it up again.

What did you keep from that night?

Oh! I have my jersey still. Rod Brind’Amour gave me a signed bottle. James Reimer gave me a signed stick. I still have all that. Obviously, my stick went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which was pretty cool. I couldn’t say no to that one.

OK. The Hurricanes and Maple Leafs meet this spring in the playoffs — who are you rooting for?

Put me on the spot with this one. (laughs) I root for a good hockey game, I guess. I have friends on both sides; it’s so hard to pick one. I’d love to see the Leafs win a Cup because they haven’t done it in so long. I’d love to see the parade they’d put on. Carolina won one (in 2006), so I’d like to see the Leafs win one. That’s for sure.

How have you been coping with the pandemic?

It sucks. But it gives me time to do projects around the house. I’ve built so much furniture this whole time we’ve been at home. I’ve been working out and spending time with family and found a new love for Call of Duty.

Ayres, right, and his wife, Sarah, pose wearing hoodies to support mental health (via Ayres’s Instagram).

How are your skills?

Not bad, actually. My buddies play the odd time. My mom moved in with us recently, and she’s like, “You play this all day long, don’t you?” You know, if there’s nothing else to do. If I’m not working or whatever, then, sure, I’ll jump on and play. But it gets a little too much for the kids and Sarah too. Like, “Just turn it off.” I’m all right. I’m pretty good.

So, do you plan on celebrating the one-year anniversary Monday? Will you raise a glass to this?

Absolutely. People have been asking what we’re gonna do with that wine Rod gave me. I’m not a big wine drinker. Sarah will probably take a sip of it. We can’t go too far, but we’ll probably have a little bit of a celebration. We’ll do something, for sure.

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