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Remarkable tale of stand-in who played a stormer for the Hurricanes

Tommy Conlon


thecouch@independent.ie

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Carolina Hurricanes emergency goalie David Ayers. Photo: Icon Sportswire via Getty

Carolina Hurricanes emergency goalie David Ayers. Photo: Icon Sportswire via Getty

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Carolina Hurricanes emergency goalie David Ayers. Photo: Icon Sportswire via Getty

Storms, floods, financial corruption and the coronavirus; greed, doping, VAR wars, fan wars, governance crises and social media meltdowns: sometimes there's just too much doom and gloom to bear.

So, for a bit of light relief, a feel-good story: a sprinkle of romance, a touch of the old Disney stardust which sport, lest we forget, is supposed to provide as a means of escape from the dismal realities all around us.

Last Saturday night, a 42-year-old blue collar everyman was watching a top-level ice hockey game with his wife, Sarah, in the Scotiabank Arena, Toronto. David Ayres' team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, were playing the Carolina Hurricanes in the National Hockey League (NHL). Next thing Ayres was down on the ice playing in goal for the Hurricanes. It was reported that he had just finished eating a Reuben sandwich.

The Hurricanes are based in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Their players were all strangers to him. Twenty-eight minutes remained when he was called in. The visitors were leading 3-1. He conceded two early goals before he settled down. He proceeded to make eight saves in a row; the Hurricanes won 6-3; he returned to a hero's welcome from his new friends in the away dressing room.

Naturally the story went national in Canada and the USA. On Monday, Ayres was taken to New York for a media blitz of TV chat shows and radio stations and newspapers. On Tuesday, he was guest of honour at the Hurricanes' home arena for their next game. They sold 7,000 jerseys with his name on them.

It was the archetypal sporting fairytale brought to life - with one significant twist. He ended up fulfilling his boyhood dream of playing in the major leagues, except he ended up playing against his own club.

It was roughly the equivalent of a Liverpool supporter standing on the Kop cheering for his team against Burnley, and getting a call at half-time to play for Burnley. But he'd made it to the big show and it didn't matter; nor did it matter that it was for one night only.

In ice hockey they use the word 'goaltender'. Ayres had been a goaltender in the minor leagues. At 27 he had a kidney transplant; his mother donated her kidney. She told the media last week that she was one proud momma. The transplant was supposed to finish his playing career. In the intervening years, the nearest he got to the pro game was driving a Zamboni and standing in goal during Maple Leafs' practice sessions.

A Zamboni is a machine that cleans and smooths the surface of an ice rink. Ayres was a full-time Zamboni driver with the Toronto Marlies, a minor league team affiliated to the Maple Leafs. He became an extra, a stand-in goalie with the Marlies for their training sessions. Then he became their emergency goalkeeper. In turn he became a stand-in for the Maple Leafs during their daily sessions. And in turn this led to him becoming their emergency 'keeper.

Meanwhile, in latter years he had graduated from the Zamboni to become a general operations manager at the Marlies' home venue.

Albeit that he was used to facing shots from the top pros during practice sessions, Ayres, until last Saturday night, hadn't played a competitive game in six years. It was a quirk of the system that allowed him through the net. Professional ice hockey squads in north America have 23 players; six are on the ice at any one time. Each squad has two goalkeepers.

They don't keep a third on the roster, apparently for salary reasons, and because they want to have 21 outfield skaters, and because it is rare that a team will lose two 'keepers in a single match.

The governing body therefore has an ad hoc rule for NHL games, whereby the home team has an 'emergency back-up 'keeper' on standby, available to either side if needed. Ayres had attended every Maple Leafs home game in this capacity for the previous three years. His only reward was free tickets to the games.

So there he was in the crowd on Saturday night, eating his Reuben sandwich, when the Hurricanes' first-choice netminder sustained a knee injury after six minutes. Ayres got a text message summoning him to the media centre beneath the ice rink. Less than half an hour later their number two was carted off with concussion. Ayres was suddenly being hurried into his pads and skating out to face his hometown side. Most of his new teammates literally did not know his name. Instead he was on first-name terms with the stars who were taking pot shots at him. Visibly nervous in his opening minutes on debut, he eventually steadied and proceeded to make a series of saves. Despite losing, the home fans gave him a standing ovation at the finish.

Not everyone was blinded by the romance of the story. The Hurricanes are in a battle to make the play-offs for the NHL's Eastern Conference, and from there to get their shot at the fabled Stanley Cup. And here in this important game they had a 42-year-old amateur standing in goals, who also happened to be a supporter, and indeed employee, of their opponents. According to Ken Campbell in Sports Illustrated, this scenario contained "huge potential for a conflict of interest". It could have been massively embarrassing for the NHL, he wrote, and financially very costly for the Hurricanes.

But all was well that ended well. Ayres was paid $500 for his night's work and went back to the day job on Thursday morning. "I am the happiest, proudest woman on the planet," tweeted Sarah Ayres, "because my human got to live out his ultimate dream."

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