David Ayres embodied the dreams of everyone who ever played on a frozen pond, a driveway, a Little League field, or a street while dodging passing cars.
At 42 years old, and 15 years after receiving a kidney transplant from his mother, Ayres lived every fan’s fantasy by being asked to save the day — and the puck. Thrust into action as the emergency backup goaltender at Toronto on Feb. 22 after the Carolina Hurricanes’ two goalies, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, were hurt, Ayres let in the first two shots he faced but saved the next eight and earned an unlikely victory.
“It was awesome,” he said in a TV interview. “Obviously, the time of my life.”
Until last week, he drove the ice resurfacing machine at the Maple Leafs’ practice rink, practiced with them and generally waited around as an emergency backup goalie. Each NHL team provides at least one emergency backup at its home games. Usually, the goalie or goalies on call will get free admission and a free dinner.
Ayres got a place in history as the oldest goalie to win his regular-season debut and a curtain call as the game’s first star. He wasn’t paid because he signed an amateur tryout contract, but the Hurricanes offered him proceeds from sales of T-shirts that bear his name. A kidney foundation also will share the proceeds.
Closing out a whirlwind week that included being made an honorary citizen of North Carolina and doing the rounds of talk shows that rarely devote time to hockey, Ayres on Friday placed his stick on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Earlier in the day, Upper Deck announced it will release a special card to commemorate his appearance. “I didn’t expect all of this, that’s for sure,” he said.
Only in hockey, eh?
Actually, yes. The Dodgers aren’t going to call a vendor out of the stands to pitch in relief — though it sometimes seems a good alternative — and the Lakers aren’t going to ask a fan to step in to take free throws.
The NHL’s emergency backup goalie procedures made folk heroes of Ayres as well as Scott Foster, an accountant who made seven saves for the Chicago Blackhawks in a game in 2018, and Carolina equipment manager Jorge Alves, who played 7.6 seconds on Dec. 31, 2016. Fans could easily identify with their everyman feats, which generated priceless, feel-good publicity for a league that needs it.
But imagine being the team whose playoff hopes are put in the hands of a rec-league goalie, a scenario that general managers are expected to discuss when they meet this week. The obvious solution — requiring teams to have top-notch backups — would raise roster and salary cap issues.
“There’s no easy fixes to it,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told NHL.com. “Particularly, we have to work with the Players’ Assn. Who’s a player? Who’s not a player? What qualifies all of that.”
NHL rules state, in part, “in regular League and Playoff games, if both listed goalkeepers are incapacitated, that team shall be entitled to dress and play any available goalkeeper who is eligible.”
Matt White, a former youth and minor league goalie and founder of Goalie Nation, is the emergency backup for the Ducks this season. Nathan Larson, a coach in Goalie Nation’s instructional program, alternates with Brian Keene, formerly of Cal State Fullerton, as the emergency backup for visiting teams at Honda Center.
Last season, finance manager Steve Jakiel of Santa Clarita dressed as the backup to then-Kings goalie Jack Campbell after Jonathan Quick fell ill during a game. Jakiel, nine years removed from his days with Division III Curry College, didn’t play but had fun. “It ended up being a pretty memorable night,” he told The Times.
Ayres was scheduled to return to emergency backup duty Saturday in Toronto. “I’d love to see somebody else in the league get the same opportunity,” he said of his moment of fame. So would every fan. Here’s hoping general managers leave this uniquely hockey quirk alone.
Bouwmeester still mulling future
St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who suffered a cardiac arrest at Honda Center on Feb. 11 and had a defibrillator implanted in his chest a few days later, said he hasn’t considered his future as a player after being ruled out the rest of this season and the playoffs. His activity is restricted but he said he feels good.
“There’s been a lot going on. I think that’s something that I’m definitely going to have to evaluate,” he said at a news conference in St. Louis last week. “To say I’ve done that, I wouldn’t say I’ve done that fully yet. There’s decisions I’m going to have to make. That will come later.”
Coming up Aces
Goalie Robin Lehner, acquired by Vegas from Chicago just before Monday’s trading deadline, made a solid debut by stopping 32 shots Friday in a 4-2 victory over Buffalo. “You just get traded, you want to go do your best and give the guys a chance to win,” he told reporters in Las Vegas.
The Golden Knights have won eight straight, two of them by 6-5 and two by shutouts. They were 10-2-1 in February. “Every night, there’s someone who’s stepping up,” right wing Reilly Smith said. He often is that someone, having scored a career-best 27 goals.
Several other players got off to good starts after being traded Monday. Danton Heinen had a goal and an assist in his first two games with the Ducks, who also got two goals and an assist from new acquisition Sonny Milano. Winger Nick Ritchie, traded by the Ducks to Boston, had a goal and an assist in his second game with the Bruins.
Tyler Ennis, traded by Ottawa to Edmonton, and Andreas Athanasiou, dealt by Detroit to Edmonton, each had a goal and an assist in their Oilers debuts Tuesday but the team was shut out by Vegas in the next game.
The trio of Ennis, Connor McDavid and Athanasiou clicked immediately. “It’s probably the fastest line I’ve ever played on, for sure. It was fun,” McDavid said after the Oilers’ 4-3 overtime loss at Anaheim on Tuesday. “They’re both very skilled and offensive and they work hard. I like the potential that line has, and it’s something to build off.”
But the Oilers weren’t as lucky with defenseman Mike Green, who hurt his knee in his second game with them and is expected to be out three to four weeks.
Two on the Isle
The New York Islanders will play their home playoff games this season (if they make it) at the Nassau Coliseum, and will play all their 2020-21 regular-season games there as well, as it should be. They had been splitting time between the Coliseum and hockey-unfriendly Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They’re scheduled to move to a new arena at Belmont Park for the 2021-22 season.