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Going into the game was just the beginning for MAC facilities worker
FRIDAY: THE DAY BEFORE
On Friday, Feb. 21, the night before the NHL debut that would be heard around the world, David Ayres was on the ice at Delpark Homes Centre in Oshawa with his friend Mike Hanna. While they skated around the ice Mike chirped Dave about his role as a NHL emergency backup goalie.
“One of these days you’re going to get into a game,” said Mike.
It was the first time in almost two months the friends had been able to participate in the weekly Friday pickup game. Dave and Mike coach a Bantam AA hockey team comprised of eighth graders called the Whitby Wildcats and they had been spending their last several Fridays holding training sessions for the boys. It was a short rest, a chance to joke and enjoy playing the game they love before returning to a busy schedule. The next day, Mike would coach the boys in a tough match against Peterborough. Dave would sit in the wings of the Scotiabank Arena, just in case an emergency goalie was needed.
SATURDAY: GAME DAY
The game between the Wildcats and Peterborough on Saturday evening was in itself a little miracle on ice. The boys were down 3-1 at the end of the second period and facing elimination. Mike entered the room and asked his players: “Do you guys like your goalies?” When the team responded that they did he explained that they didn’t because they had been allowing a lot of attempts on goal. They turned it around in the third by scoring three times and winning the game 4-3.
The parents, elated by the comeback win, filed out into the concourse area of the Iroquois Park Sports Centre in south Whitby. The room was filled with TVs and the Leafs game was on. The first thing Lindsay Hanna saw when she entered the lobby and looked up at one of those TVs was Petr Mrazek, the Carolina Hurricanes goalie, colliding with Leafs forward Kyle Clifford. Lindsay, a Ryerson digital content and web specialist, and Mike’s wife, had caught a glimpse of the game earlier and knew that starting goalie James Reimer had been hurt. With two Carolina Hurricanes goalies down in the same game, she just knew that meant the spotlight might be about to shine on her friend, and her husband’s co-coach – Dave.
Instinctually she messaged her friend Sarah Ayres to check if Sarah’s husband was going on to the ice. Sarah sent one short message back: “I’m sh***ng myself.”
Lindsay started to run down the hall and back out to the rink to grab Mike. He was waiting outside the boys’ locker room about to give a post-game talk. Lindsay ran up to Mike and said, “Oh my god, Dave is going in. Go tell the boys.” He ran into the dressing room and told a group of hockey-obsessed boys that their coach was going to take the ice in a NHL game.
All the parents and boys went as a group to a Boston Pizza inside the Iroquois Park complex to watch the game. The restaurant was packed. People who didn’t even know Dave had come in to watch him. A group of coaches were thrilled to recount that they had met Dave through Mike the year before. It was an adrenaline rush. Mike was receiving texts from parents from another team he was about to coach with Dave later in the year. The two 13-year-old goalies for the Wildcats would rush up and pose next to the screen whenever there was a close-up of their coach.
Meanwhile, Sarah Ayres was watching the game from a corner of the Scotiabank Arena, while at the same time trying to deal with a wave of messages similar to the one Lindsay had sent her. She looked at her phone, took a few minutes to respond and then went back to watching the game. On the nights when he is the emergency goalie, Dave and Sarah have assigned seats, but they normally stand up and away from the crowd to not draw too much attention.
But now Dave wasn’t with her. He was already downstairs in the dressing room getting ready for the game. He took a picture of his freshly made Hurricanes jersey and sent it to her. When she saw it, her mind went back to the time the Chicago Blackhawks were playing the Leafs and a goalie was injured.
Dave had dressed that night too and, although he didn’t play, the team had made a sweater for him with his name on it. But this time Sarah knew it was different. This was more than just a chance to get an NHL game jersey with her husband’s name on the back.
Dave entered the game. Sarah’s heart raced. She thought about how many people were watching him at this moment. She thought of how nervous he must be feeling.
After the game Dave went to the locker room, changed out of his equipment and met up with Sarah at the edge of the rink. Together they would conduct their first post NHL game interview with TSN’s Mark Masters. The couple stood together and answered a plethora of questions that would be re-asked of them countless times in the days following. On the drive back home, they received several requests for interviews. They organized various appointments for the next day. But both of them just wanted to get home and rest after a crazy night.
Reflecting later about the events of that night, Mike, Lindsay and Sarah would all say the same thing: Dave went to bed that night not quite realizing how much his life was going to change.
SUNDAY: THE DAY AFTER
Sunday morning Sarah drove Dave to a Leafs practice. He hit the ice with injured Leafs forwards Ilya Mikheyev and William Nylander. Dave often trains with the rehabbing Leafs players and plays in net during their practice sessions. Dave came off the ice, conducted several interviews about the night prior and then looked at his phone.
Someone from the Hurricanes PR office had messaged. Apparently there were several requests for Dave to do media.
They said they wanted him to go to New York.
Sarah took him to an interview with TSN and then immediately to the airport. She wanted to go with him to New York, but her passport was expired. She thought about how she had intended to replace it a couple weeks earlier, but had lost her passport photo and had decided to do it later. Now she was distraught, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to go with her husband to New York, knowing that Dave would have to deal with the pressure of the media all by himself.
When the Whitby Wildcats travelled to Peterborough for the series tiebreaker on Sunday, the players were still buzzing about Dave’s performance the night prior. Mike gave a speech to his team stressing that they learn from Dave’s example. “I hope you guys understand what’s happening here. I know you guys are watching Dave and are seeing all the stuff he’s doing, but the thing I want you guys to take from this is that he’s 42, he’s had a kidney transplant and the reason that he is where he is because he works hard every day. It doesn’t matter what you do in your life if you put the time in you’re going to reap the benefits.”
One of the players texted Dave saying, “I’m going to make a promise to you I’m going to score tonight, we’re going to win and we’re not going to hang the goalies out to dry.” Dave saw the message and started laughing. He texted Mike and joked that Mike must have really let their players have it the day prior. The young hockey player kept his promise to Dave and scored twice in a series clinching win for the Wildcats.
Dave arrived in New York and was met by a Hurricanes PR representative at the airport. They drove to a pub to plan out the itinerary for a busy Monday.
Sunday night Dave facetimed Sarah. They finally had an opportunity to talk about everything that had happened. To Sarah, it felt like when they had first started dating, a quiet moment where they could chat about how both of their days had unfolded. At this point both of them were exhausted from the lack of sleep, from everything that was happening. It was an emotional chat that allowed both of them to talk about the storm that they were currently a part of.
MONDAY: NON-STOP MEDIA
Monday in New York, David Ayres did 26 interviews. Mike Sundheim, vice-president of communications for the Carolina Hurricanes, helped arrange Dave’s interviews and television appearances. Reflecting on that day and those that would follow, Sundheim said that there was more media coverage around the Ayres story than when the Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
The story had more worldwide appeal than most hockey stories. Outlets that were not normally interested in the NHL were asking for Dave. He would finish telling his story on a talk show, walk off the set and immediately be handed a phone. His appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert was arranged last minute. The show runners found out Dave was in the area and asked about him being involved in Colbert’s opening monologue. In the bit, Colbert pretended to pull a muscle and Dave ran out to save the show.
Dave participated in as many interviews as possible. He had a platform and insisted on using it to raise awareness around kidney transplants.
Back in Toronto that day, Lindsay took a call at work from Mike. He told her that he and some of the other Wildcats coaches, players and parents were driving down to Raleigh, where the Hurricanes planned to honour Dave at their Tuesday game. Lindsay decided she wanted to go. She hurried home from Ryerson and spent 15 minutes packing. She rushed outside and was picked up by the herd of Wildcats, ready to make the long drive from Toronto to North Carolina.
That night, after she received her new passport, Sarah flew on her own for the first time. She arrived in Raleigh a half hour before Dave. When they met up, Sarah, Dave and a Hurricanes PR representative walked towards their Uber. There was a reporter waiting for them.
TUESDAY: DAVID AYRES DAY
Lindsay, Mike and their band of weary travellers finally arrived in Raleigh on Tuesday. They texted Sarah and were told where they had to go next. They entered the rink. Dave was on top of an ice resurfacer shooting a commercial, with Sarah watching on. The pack of 11 Whitby Wildcats marched up to the Ayres, all dressed in their brand-new David Ayres Carolina Hurricanes jerseys. As the two groups finally came together in the PNC Arena, Lindsay surveyed everything — the cameras and PR representatives around Dave and Sarah. The Hurricanes staff had already started setting up for the night’s game, which was going to serve as a tribute to Dave. Lindsay thought of everything that had transpired over the last few days.
She said to herself: “I can’t believe we’re here.”
Tuesday night the Hurricanes hosted the Dallas Stars and Dave was the guest of honour. The mayor of Raleigh, Mary-Anne Baldwin, had declared it “David Ayres Day.” A thousand more people attended the PNC Arena than the stadium’s season average. An autograph signing was scheduled before the game. Hurricanes staff had to cut the line off after eight minutes. The line of fans had started wrapping all the way around the back of the concourse. People came and thanked Dave for his performance. Parents would mention their children who were currently awaiting kidney transplants. Hurricanes fans raised homemade posters that read, “AYRES.”
Dave sounded the Hurricanes’ storm siren before the game to an erupting crowd.
During the game the Canes played a tribute video. Dave and Sarah sat in the Carolina director’s box and took in the video together. Photos of Dave lit up the arena. Sarah had provided photos for the Canes to use and some had featured Dave with other members of the Wildcats coaching staff. Lindsay and Mike watched the video from their seats, both blown away. A group of Canes fans were sitting behind them and recognized Mike from the video. They insisted on buying beers for all of Dave’s friends.
On Saturday, Feb. 29, in the evening, the Ayres family finally sat down and watched Dave’s league debut together. Watching it back it was clear that Dave was nervous. According to Sarah, Dave is usually an unshakably calm goalie. “He’s one of those guys that when you watch him in net you’re not worried.”
While they rewatched him play they noticed him shake and fidget. It was one of the most unusual nights in NHL history. David Ayres had worked so hard and it had paid off. He was playing with the pros. And while he was nervous, he pushed through and performed. He did the same thing when he became the centre of a giant story and suddenly had a platform to talk about kidney transplants. Both Sarah and Dave pushed through nerves to make the most of an incredible moment.
A couple weeks after living out his lifelong dream of playing in a NHL game, Dave is still very busy. He is scheduled to participate in an upcoming charity PGA event. He is talking to studios that have been in contact with him about making his story into a movie.
And he is still constantly juggling phone calls from reporters.