David Ayres started the second period like everyone else at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday evening: enjoying a tightly contested battle between two playoff contenders, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes. Unlike the over 18,000 people in attendance, though, Ayres found himself tending net for the Canes to finish the frame.
An hour and a half later, he picked up the win for an NHL team.
How? Things started off on the wrong foot for the Hurricanes when James Reimer was pulled six minutes into the first period when Jaccob Slavin fell on top of the Carolina netminder minutes prior. Petr Mrazek took over, but after 30 minutes in the Hurricanes' crease, Mrazek rushed towards the blueline to play the puck where he collided with Maple Leafs winger Kyle Clifford. Mrazek was down for roughly two minutes before he was helped off the ice with an upper-body injury – without a backup in sight.
Enter Ayres, a 42-year-old from Whitby, Ont. His last competitive action was an eight-game stint with Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League where he allowed 58 goals with a .777 save percentage and a 0-8 record. Wearing equipment representing Toronto's AHL team, the Marlies, Ayres became just the third emergency goaltender in the modern era to play in the NHL, and he went out and set a few records. At 28:41, it's the most ice time by an emergency backup in NHL history. He also became the first to win a game. And at 42 years and 194 days, Ayres is the oldest goaltender ever – emergency backup or otherwise – to win a regular-season debut. He bested the previous mark set by Hugh Lehman, who won his debut at 41 years and 21 days with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1926-27 season.
"I had a couple text messages that said 'get in there,'" Ayres said post-game. "I hadn't seen the footage. I was in the media room by myself and a guy comes in and said 'get going'. Then I walked down the tunnel. It was wild."
At first, the feel-good story looked like it was about to have a horrific ending. Ayres was beaten by the first two shots he faced in the second period, but the Hurricanes rallied around the netminder in the third, taking a 6-3 lead early in the frame. Even the diehard Leafs fans in attendance couldn't help but cheer anytime the Mattamy Athletic Centre Zamboni driver stopped the puck.
"The guys told me to have fun with it. Don't worry about how many goals go in. Just enjoy it and said this is your moment."
"I was nervous for the whole second period, as you could tell. I couldn't stop the puck if I wanted to. I told the boys when I came out in the third, I'd be ready to go."
This isn't the first time the Hurricanes dabbled in emergency goaltender territory. In 2016, Jorge Alves kicked New Year’s Eve off in style with a seven-second debut for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2016. With the Hurricanes trailing by two, Eddie Lack fell sick and couldn’t back up, so Alves, the team’s equipment manager, did his normal duties during intermission before making his seven-second debut at the age of 37.
In 2018, Scott Foster was forced to play the final 14 minutes for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Winnipeg Jets after Anton Forsberg and Collin Delia both went down with injuries. Foster, 36, stopped all seven shots he faced in what one of the craziest moments of the decade. The funny part? Foster, an accountant, wasn’t the only Hawks goalie to make their debut that night. It was Delia’s first NHL start.
A usual Saturday night has Ayres, a kidney transplant survivor, coaching his Whitby AA bantam team. Ayres, who grew up a Bruins fan but became a Leafs fan after working with the club. Ayres fills in at practice from time to time (the Leafs canceled practice on Sunday, so no immediate reunion), so he was quite familiar with his opponents.
"I didn't expect (John) Tavares to go low on the first shot. He psyched me out," Ayres said with a laugh. "I thought he was going to go high blocker on me. I said, if the guys come in, I might know where they're going to go, but in a game situation, that's all out the window."
"Even though I was on the other team, they were so receptive. They were so awesome. Every time I made a save, I could hear them cheering for me."
The Leafs, on the other hand, will quickly want to forget Saturday's result, despite the uniqueness of a friend of the team.
"No disrespect to Davy, awesome guy," Auston Matthews said after the game. "But when you have an emergency goalie like that come into the game, I think the consensus is to shoot the puck as much as possible."
What did coach Rod Brind'Amour tell Ayres after he was forced into action?
"I said 'stop the puck, buddy.' We told him we were going to go after it in the third. We're not gonna sit back. We were going to try to protect you but you're going to have to make a save or two and get us the win. That's exactly what happened."
Per NHL rules, Ayres was paid $500 and allowed to keep his game-worn jersey. Ayres previously served as an emergency goaltender for the Marlies in 2016 and with the Charlotte Checkers 21 days ago, so it's not his first rodeo as a super sub – but it's safe to say two periods of NHL action is something he'll never forget.
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