It was a surreal sight on Saturday night when the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes called upon a zamboni driver to be their goalie for a portion of their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
David Ayres, 42, is a zamboni driver for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, the “farm team” of the Maple Leafs. He is also a practice goalie in the Leafs’ organization, stopping pucks for nearly a decade with them.
Ayres was watching the game with his wife, Sarah, in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena when the Hurricanes starter, James Reimer, went down with a collision in the first period. Later in the game, Carolina’s backup goalie Petr Mrázek was run into by Leafs forward Kyle Clifford early in the second period, getting injured in the process. With no goalie on the immediate roster to fill the vacancy in net, the “Canes” were at odds.
Fortunately, the NHL has a rule for such a scenario. Each team must have a mandatory emergency goalie present in the arena for every game in the event that both a team’s starter and backup netminder cannot play. David was Toronto’s designated emergency goalie for the game. He left his seat and partially changed into his gear after Reimer’s injury just in case he was needed. Sure enough, he was. His call to action came.
David came onto the ice in his No. 90 Hurricanes jersey with mismatched blue Maple Leafs pants at 8:41 in the second period and took some warm up shots before play resumed. Understandably, things didn’t go well for him off of the start. He let in the first two shots Toronto put on him, narrowing the score to 4-3 Carolina. Miraculously, he saved the remaining eight shots on net for the rest of the game and helped the Hurricanes win 6-3. With the victory, he earned the record of being the oldest goalie in NHL history to win his regular season debut.
Once David entered the Hurricanes locker room after the game, he was doused with water in celebration. As per emergency goalie contract regulations, he was paid $500 for his play and was allowed to keep the jersey he wore. Additionally, the Hurricanes sold Ayres No. 90 t-shirts after the game, with the proceeds going to both David and a kidney foundation, inspired by a kidney transplant David had 15 years prior. But his fame didn’t end there.
Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane declared Tuesday “David Ayres Day” as the city held a victory parade for his heroics. David was also invited onto Monday’s airing of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Show.” With such a fever dream of an accomplishment, the celebrations of David’s victory will continue for days to come.
Surprisingly, this hasn’t been the only recent scenario in which an emergency goalie was called into action. On March 29, 2018, the Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets were dueling in the Windy City when both Blackhawk goalies sustained injuries that left them unable to play. Chicago’s answer was Scott Foster, a 37-year-old accountant and beer league goalie. Foster came in after Blackhawks backup goalie Collin Delia cramped up and out of the game with 14:01 left. Donning a red No. 90 jersey, he skated out and took the vacancy in net, stopping seven Jets shots and letting none in, helping preserve a 6-2 Chicago win.
There have been countless times an emergency goalie was needed on standby and did not get close to playing, and a lesser handful of times the incidental backup almost had to be called in due to injuries the professional netminder sustained. Such cases include the story of University of British Columbia student Chris Levesque, who was a goalie for the university’s hockey team. On Dec. 9, 2003, the Vancouver Canucks called on Levesque to be their emergency backup for that night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Late in the first period, regular backup Johan Hedberg fractured his wrist during an aggressive play, and Levesque was anxiously waiting as the Canucks medical staff met Hedberg on the ice to tend to his injury. Levesque was possibly only moments away from putting on his helmet and playing. Luckily, Hedberg played through the pain and the student athlete was not needed.
Other minor incidents include goalie coaches, who are often former NHL players, having to be placed on standby for games, as well as equipment managers and even locker room attendants.
The rarity of such a scenario makes each prospect of an unprofessional athlete being forced to play in one of the biggest stages in sports take on a fairytale feel. Judging by the joyfully stunned reactions of the goalies, even the ones who were not called upon to play, the chance to live out a childhood dream is unfathomably rewarding.