There was a point last weekend where ‘Dave Ayres’ was the most-searched term in North America.
Sure, several topics and terms “trend” on the internet -- a daily occurrence -- but usually they aren’t associated with 42 year-old emergency back-up goalies, especially those that become the oldest goaltender to win an NHL game on their debut.
One Crazy Week
To understand how the Whitby, Ontario native found himself in such a position, we have to be familiar with the NHL Emergency Backup Goalie (EBUG) protocol. Per NHL rule 5.3, "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."
It’s a rare occasion when the rule has to be invoked, but it did happen on Saturday, February 22, when the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes two regular goaltenders, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were injured in the game and Ayres was called upon to step in and stop pucks.
Ayres allowed the first two shots behind him, but stopped the final eight in 29 minutes of duty and got the official win when Carolina cruised past Toronto 6-3.
Dave did a couple interviews for host broadcasters after the game - as usual - but then, things got turned up a notch. Dave, and his wife Sarah, were whisked to New York with an itinerary full of interviews and appearance.
“Since I got off the ice last Saturday, I did around 25 hits on Monday and I'm easily over a 100,” Ayres exclaimed. “Easily.”
“It was the first time I went to the city and it's funny because my friends asked me, ‘How did you enjoy New York?’ And I said, ‘I couldn't tell you where I was.’ I was in one studio, to the next studio to the phone in between studios. I didn't get a chance to actually enjoy the city”
More than 25 interviews in one day would be a lot for anyone, but for Ayres, humble and reserved, it was a lot to take in.
“I'm more like a chilled out kind of guy who is just trying to do his own thing. The fame thing that goes along with it has been really different to deal with,” he explained. But you know, as you are kind of getting thrown into it, you have to do what you got to do.”
The following morning, running on fumes, Dave and Sarah headed to Raleigh, North Carolina - home of the Hurricanes - to participate in a series of ceremonies before their Tuesday match-up with the Dallas Stars. And of course, more appearances.
What they didn’t know when they hit the Tar Heel state, was how much of a cult hero hero he’d become in the local area.
“Raleigh was great,” Ayres said excitedly.
“The people and the fans and stuff were all so positive and embraced the whole situation. Every single place I've been since Saturday night I've been recognized. It's not even a joke. “
While in Raleigh, the state capital, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin declared Tuesday as ‘David Ayres Day’. Taking it one step further, Governor Roy Cooper named the emergency goaltender an honorary North Carolina citizen.
That night, a raucous crowd watched as Dave rang the famous warning siren -- but this time his presence didn’t propel a Canes victory. Dallas won 4-1 on Tuesday night, but like everything else last week, there were more smiles and surprises to be had.
“Tyler Seguin and Joe Pavelski came up to me and they're like, ‘Man, this is awesome. That was so cool. Congratulations.’ And they said, ‘Do you mind if we take a picture with you?’ So Pavelski and Seguin just sat there and took a picture with me.”
“You go to the Hall of Fame and see the shrines and everybody wants to be there for some reason,” Ayres said. “Everybody wants a piece of something that they've done in the hall of fame.”
And that’s exactly what happened for this unsuspecting star. The Hall of Fame enshrined his game stick and, more importantly, his historic moment.
Asked how long the Hall of Fame plans to run the exhibit, Ayres was all laughs.
“I don't think I'm going to get that one back.”
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
If Ayres’ story seems completely improbable, that’s because it truly is. But not for just the reasons listed above.
You see, back in 2004, before a hockey practice, Ayres couldn’t seem to get his foot into his hockey skate due to extreme swelling. After undergoing tests, doctors found that both of Ayres’ kidneys had succumbed to a strep infection.
The only solution was a transplant, but all Ayres could think of was getting back on the ice.
“That's pretty much the first thing I asked. I said, ‘Am I done for hockey, am I going to be able to play?’ And the kidney doctor is like, ‘No, we're going to try and get you to get back on the ice as soon as we can.’
Miraculous, Ayres’ donor was his mother and since then, he’s been living and playing with one kidney ever since.
“I ended up losing 40 pounds and going through dialysis. It was not a quick road to recovery,” he began.
“I mean, it probably took a year and a half to recover before I was feeling almost back to myself.”
For all intents and purposes, the kidney illness ended and already stop-and-start professional career for Ayres. But it was a blessing in disguise.
Around that time, roughly 15 years ago, Ayres started driving a Zamboni in Oshawa, Ontario, to fill the hockey void. After a few years, he went on to work for the Toronto Marlies for awhile before becoming the Operations Manager at the Mattamy Athletic Center (the old Maple Leaf Gardens).
Through his time at the facility he began taking the ice again -- and stopping pucks -- for both the Marlies and Maples Leafs during practice sessions. It wasn’t too long until he caught the eye of the coaching staff, specifically Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas.
“When he first came on he was the assistant GM,” said Ayres. “We got to know each other and from there he invited me to be the emergency goalie for Leafs’ games.
“He’s been very good to me.”
By the end of this season, Ayres will have served more than 100 games as the emergency backup in Toronto - something that could’ve never happened if it wasn’t for his diagnosis and the way life unfolded after.
Back to Normal?
I spoke to Ayres on Saturday, February 29 - a full week after his life-changing moment. It was a couple hours before he was meant to be back at the Scotiabank Arena in his usual spot as the emergency option for the Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.
But nothing is usual for Ayres anymore.
“I've been recognized at the grocery store and at the gym. Last night we went out to eat and we got recognized. Five people came up to our table and asked for pictures and autographs,” Ayres said sheepishly.
“it's just been one of those things, it's been all over the world.”
It’s an uncomfortable position for Ayres, but he welcomes some portions of stardom.
“You have to prepare yourself when you get stopped and asked for a picture. Who am I to turn around and not give a fan of a picture and autograph when they ask for it?”
“ If it wasn't for fans this wouldn't be happening. Right?”
When asked why he thinks he’s become such a star, Ayres reflects on the “every man” quality of his inspirational experience.
“I think people relate to me being a normal person. I'm not a guy who went through the system in hockey all the way up and it's not like I played forever. It's more like he was a practice goalie and he saw a lot of rubber.”
“It sounds like a Cinderella Story. Right? People like that stuff.”