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Fifteen years ago David Ayers put his dreams of a professional hockey career on ice – literally. He was lying in a hospital bed in the need of kidney transplant which he got from his mother, Mary. But he stayed connected to the game. He’s the maintenance manager at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (the old Maple Leaf Gardens) and has spent time as a practice goalie with the AHL Toronto Marlies and the NHL Maple Leafs. But the closest he has been to game action is driving the Zamboni between periods for the minor league team.
On most nights that the National Hockey League team is at home the 42-year-old Ayers is in the house as the EBUG, the Emergency Back-Up Goaltender, available to suit up for either side in the case that one of the four goalies is injured. Every once in awhile, an EBUG gets the thrill of sitting on the bench watching the number 2 guy mind the net.
But Saturday night, Carolina’s James Reimer went down with a lower-body injury in the 1st Period. In the 2nd, Peter Mrazek left the goal and collided with Toronto forward Kyle Clifford in a massive concussion-inducing hit. After the first injury, Reid Mitchell, the scouting director for the Leafs texted Ayers and told him to get half-dressed. The Hurricanes equipment manager hurried to put Ayers’ name on the back of a ‘Canes sweater. After the second injury, he was walking through the tunnel on the way to the ice.
Wearing a mask decked out with the Marlies logo and blue pants clashing with the Hurricanes’ reds, Ayers was given some time to warm up. A 4-1 Carolina lead was quickly reduced to a single goal as Toronto scored quickly, showing Ayers that being in net for a game was a lot different than being there in practice. That’s when Erik Haula, the ‘Canes left wing skated over to Ayers to calm him down. “Just have fun. We don’t care if you let 10 goals in.”
But the two goals was all he would allow. The Carolina defense worked hard to keep the puck away from the net and Ayers would stop the next 8 shots he saw. The Zamboni driver, the man with the 0-8 record in the Allan Cup Hockey League would skate off the ice with a 1-0 record in the NHL and he would return to take a curtain call, voted the Number One Star of the game. The hometown crowd was exceptionally kind, cheering every save the Whitby, Ontario native made and gave him a pretty good ovation at the end of Carolina’s 6-3 win.
His new teammates greeted him in the lockerroom with a waterbottle shower and chants of “Dave! Dave! Dave!” Coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was shown on the Hockey Night telecast rolling eyes heavenward when Ayers entered the game, told the press afterward, “It’s pretty special. I told the guys after the game, ‘Thank him, because that just gave [us] an incredible memory.'”
For his efforts, Ayers gets to keep his game sweater and will be paid $500. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper promised to make him an honorary state citizen. The Hurricanes also promised to make a donation to the Kidney Foundation in his name. He’s going to hang his No. 90 sweater up someplace in his home and promises, “I’m going to look at it every day.”