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Was David Ayres a godsend or an embarrassment for the NHL? Probably both

Everything about Ayres' victory for the Hurricanes was wonderful and he deserves every bit of the fame that is coming his way. That doesn't change the fact that the lack of a professional backup could have had very real and potentially very disastrous effects for Carolina.

All of the deserved fanfare and attention around David Ayres in the days after his Saturday night heroics reminds one of the John Scott All-Star Game saga in 2016, in that it had the potential to be an enormous embarrassment for the NHL until it turned out to be the greatest thing that could have ever happened.

To be sure, the way the story unfolded and its aftermath have been nothing but good for the NHL, Ayres and the Carolina Hurricanes. The world, both inside and outside the game, has fully embraced the story of a 42-year-old Zamboni driver and kidney transplant survivor who came into an NHL game halfway through and won the game, a victory that will be recorded for all to see for all time. Ayres has appeared on The Today Show and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which is the kind of exposure and feel-good attention for the league that no amount of money can buy. Yesterday was David Ayres Day in both Raleigh and the state of North Carolina and T-shirts bearing his name and number are being sold, with proceeds going to both Ayres himself and the National Kidney Foundation’s Carolinas division. A lot of people who don’t know a butterfly save from an actual butterfly are talking about David Ayres.

If all of that doesn’t warm your heart, don’t even bother to check to see if you have one. All of it was wonderful and Ayres deserves every bit of the fame that is coming his way.

But on the other hand, this whole thing could have had very real and potentially very disastrous effects on the Hurricanes. As it stands today, the Hurricanes are two points out of the last wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, albeit with three games in hand over the No. 8 Columbus Blue Jackets. But you can only imagine the hue and cry had Ayres been porous and the Hurricanes had lost the game Saturday night, resulting in them missing the playoffs by one point or on a tiebreaker. They would have been deprived of a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and duplicate their magic from last season when they finished seventh in the East and made their way to the Eastern Conference final. The lost revenues for the organization would be in the millions, which would be the difference between a good year financially and a great one. That’s exactly what was at stake here.

And so on Saturday night, it’s possible the Hurricanes’ season rested on the shoulders of a 42-year-old who last played seriously competitive hockey six years ago when he went 0-8-0 with an 8.88 goals-against average and a .777 save percentage for a senior team in Ontario. And not only that, he actually works for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and occasionally takes shots from the Leafs when he subs in for one of their goalies in practice. That creates a huge potential for a conflict of interest.

The GMs actually tightened up the emergency backup goalie rules a few years ago and have set criteria for selection. And somehow, a 42-year-old who works for the team in question met that criteria. There doesn’t seem to be any plan to change things when the GMs meet next in March. In fact, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, “there are no easy fixes,” when it comes to a situation that might happen once a season. And he’s probably right. It’s strange to think that a goalie closer to being NHL caliber couldn’t be found in a city like Toronto, where you shake a tree and goalies fall out. But there are soon to be 32 cities in the NHL and not all of them have a ton of hockey being played. So you run the risk of having a sub-par goalie go in for a long period of a game, but only if your two roster goalies have gone down. It almost never happens, but it does happen.

One GM said the only solution he can think of is for a team to carry three goalies, the way the St. Louis Blues did when Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall were at the end of their careers. But that is definitely not happening. No team is going to give up a roster spot for a guy who may never appear in a game and there is no way the league is adding a roster spot, and the cost that comes with it, to the 23-man configuration it currently has.

So the league will move along with the current format, fully knowing that it has equal potential to create either an embarrassment or a windfall. Given the way it has unfolded for Ayres, it’s probably worth the risk.

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