Dave Ayers received a kidney transplant from his mother when he was 27 and at that point you could understand why he felt as though his hockey career was over.
Before this weekend, he hadn’t played competitively since appearing in eight games with the Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League. And things didn’t go well there. He allowed 58 goals and was 0-8 with a .777 save percentage.
But as his medical condition improved, so did his outlook and it within a few years he’d worked himself into position to get back into the game as a Zamboni driver and arena maintenance worker for the Toronto Marlies, the AHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In that capacity, Ayers, now 42, was a regular goaltender at Marlies practices and even showed up once in a while at Maple Leafs workouts. He even was the Marlies backup goalie for a game earlier this month in Toronto.
His play was so good, the Maple Leafs eventually arranged to have him serve as an emergency backup at their games – just in case both of their goalies, or both of their opponent’s goalies, got hurt in the same game.
Well, guess what? On Saturday night in Toronto, both goalies on the Carolina Hurricanes fell to injuries. And Ayers got his chance to make some history.
“He probably dreams of playing in the National Hockey League,” Carolina’s Warren Foegele told reporters after the game. “What a moment for him. Something he’ll never forget, and something we won’t either.”
After getting the call to arms from Reid Mitchell, the Leafs director of hockey and scouting operations, Ayres started off somewhat shaky by allowing goals on the first two shots he faced to John Tavares and Pierre Engvall. But he stopped the last eight to help the Hurricanes to a 6-3 win.
“I thought I wasn’t going to be nervous if it ever happened,” Ayres said. “But I was nervous for the whole second period, as you could tell, I couldn’t stop a puck if I had to in the second. …But I told the boys in the dressing room, ‘Once we come out for the third, I’ll be settled down and ready to win this one.’”
And he did. He was named the No. 1 star. The pro-Maple Leafs crowed yelled their approval as he skated back to the ice.
“I’ve been on this ice many times without fans,” Ayres said. “Put fans in the mix and it’s a whole different game, obviously. But, hey, once in a lifetime. I’ll take it.”
For his effort, Ayers made $500 and the Hurricanes allowed him to keep his No. 90 jersey. He said Monday on The Today Show that his stick was being sent to the NHL Hall of Fame.
“It’s pretty special,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I told the guys after the game, ‘Thank him, because that just gave [us] an incredible memory.'”
Carolina’s starting goalie James Reimer left with a lower body injury with six minutes to play in the first period. His replacement, Petr Mrazek, could not continue after a second-period collision with a Toronto player.
Since they knew who Ayers was – he wore a helmet adorned with Marlies stickers – a few Maple Leaf players approached him as he was leaving the ice after the second period and affectionately tapped his pads with their sticks.
According to the NHL, Ayers, who played just under 29 minutes, is the second emergency backup goalie to get into a game in the last three seasons. An accountant, Scott Foster, played 14 minutes for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018 and made 14 saves to ice a win.
On Monday, Ayers was in New York City taking advantage of his newfound celebrity by making a bunch of television appearances. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes got back to business by recalling goalies Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg from Charlotte of the AHL.
The Hurricanes hometown – Raleigh, N.C. – is pulling out all of the stops this week. The city’s mayor proclaimed Tuesday “David Ayers Day.” Ayers will ignite the team’s ceremonial siren before their home game that night against Dallas.
The Hurricanes have been selling Ayres tee-shirts online ($28) and according to NHL.com had sold more than 3,200 as of Sunday. The Hurricanes plan on selling the shirts at their team store at PNC Arena will give a portion of proceeds to Ayres and a kidney foundation of his choice.
“The only thing that sucks for him is that it was against the Leafs,” Reimer told The Athletic. “I mean, if it was for the Leafs there’d be statues. But now, it might be the opposite.
“I do this for a living, for a few years. When you’re hurt and you come back that first game, after two weeks, four weeks, it’s like you’ve never played an NHL game in your life. For him, not playing a competitive game for who knows how many years, you can’t even describe it.
“He’s a legend, an absolute legend.”