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David Ayres isn’t just the Zamboni driver who backstopped the Carolina Hurricanes to a 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. He’s not just the only emergency backup goalie in NHL history to record a win. His NHL dreams have ties to Ryerson University, right at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC), home of the Ryerson Rams.
The title of Zamboni driver is a misnomer. Ayres is the operations manager of the Mattamy Athletic Centre, formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens, where his duties include, but are not limited to, Zamboni driving. He recently reached the five-year mark of being a part of the Ryerson family.
And after Saturday, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi is glowing with pride.
“It’s a historical moment for somebody who has a connection to Ryerson,” Lachemi said. “We are very proud of him…that’s surreal.”
Ayres’s life-changing opportunity happened on Saturday night, when the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Carolina Hurricanes during the nationwide broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada.
In the first period, Hurricanes’ starting goaltender James Reimer went down with an injury. That meant that backup goalie Petr Mrazek went into the game. And that in turn forced Ayres to dress for the Hurricanes, just in case. The odds of both goaltenders getting injured in a game is slim to none, but the unthinkable happened.
Midway through the second period, Mrazek also suffered an injury after colliding with Leafs forward Kyle Clifford. Mrazek was unable to continue playing, forcing Ayres to take over the net. After letting in the first two shots, Ayres recorded eight saves and led Carolina to victory.
“It feels great. I hope someone else gets the chance to do it again,” Ayres said Tuesday, during a telephone interview from Raleigh, N.C., where he is to be honoured during a Hurricanes game. “They’re going to have a lot of fun like I did.”
Ayres’s dream come true seems like something straight out of the movies, even drawing similarities to the story of Rudy — a dreamer who gets the chance to hang around the team and ends up saving the day.
“Obviously every kid’s dream is to get to play in the NHL and I played half a game, so I was lucky enough to get in the NHL,“ said Ayres.
This moment has been years in the making for the 42-year-old from Whitby, Ont. Ayres grew up playing goalie, similar to his father and brother. He played Junior B hockey and attended several pro camps until he had to get a kidney transplant in 2004. The operation changed everything for Ayres, as it was uncertain if he would ever play hockey again.
Following a successful recovery, he began working eight years ago at Coca-Cola Coliseum, formerly known as Ricoh Coliseum, where he would start practising with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. The team eventually asked him to come on as a practice goalie. He credits his years of hard work behind the scenes to his success on Saturday night.
“I don’t think anybody really knows the amount of practising I put in over the last eight years for the Marlies and the Leafs. I’ve actually been on the ice with a couple of other teams as well when they’ve been in the city when they needed a goalie, so I’ve got a lot of experience at that level. People kind of make it seem like they just pulled me off a Zamboni.“
His coworkers at the MAC say they are incredibly proud of him. Dan Berger, the arena’s general manager, says he’s a fantastic guy.
“I’ve probably received over 10,000 emails since Saturday of people trying to get a hold of us,” Berger said. “We’re all extremely happy for him.”
The Ryerson Rams men’s hockey team also have their connections with Ayres. Forward Cavin Leth, who also works alongside Ayres as a building operator, says he’s a really good friend.
“He’s an honest, hard-working guy and it’s something you can’t teach,” Leth said. “To see a guy come from something like [a kidney transplant] and overcome it and be such a great person, it’s really cool.”
Leth vividly remembers the moment he saw Ayres get his big opportunity. He had just gotten home from dinner when he saw Ayres start to take the ice on TV.
“I saw his face and I was like, ‘Oh my God, like there’s no way this is happening.’ I couldn’t have been more happy for him, it was awesome.”
Leth also mentioned that his teammates were blowing up their group chat.
Before Ayres was stopping pucks against the Maple Leafs, he was facing shots from these very same players, occasionally serving as an extra goaltender for the Rams when needed.
“You can’t help but smile for the guy,” said Ryerson Rams goalie Taylor Dupuis. “That’s the kind of guy he is. As a goalie, you kind of feel what he’s going through. Anyone would be nervous in that moment so it makes me root for him more.”
Dupuis says he would often talk to Ayres about anything, from tips for stopping the puck to the latest goaltending news. A couple years ago, Dupuis also had the opportunity to serve as an emergency backup goalie for the Leafs and Marlies. Although he didn’t get to play in a game, he says Ayres gave him a great deal of advice about it.
“He filled me in on it because he was doing it before I was. I could probably guarantee you his legs were Jello. When you come off the bench in OUA, there’s always a lot of pressure. And then you up that scale to the NHL.”
Less than 24 hours after his magical moment, Ayres was at the Leafs practice, sharing the ice with some of the same players he had just defeated. He says there were no signs of animosity as he was welcomed with open arms, recalling Leafs forward William Nylander giving him a big hug upon seeing him on Sunday.
“The players and the training staff were there and they told me how proud of me they were…they know how hard it is,” Ayres said. “They were happy to see me get in there, not necessarily win, but at least get into the game.”
The Carolina Hurricanes have invited Ayres as a special guest for Tuesday night’s game against the Dallas Stars. The club will also be selling shirseys, shirts with his name and number on them, as merchandise. Ayres and the Hurricanes chose to donate all proceeds to the National Kidney Foundation of North Carolina.
“I know that I’m sounding the sirens at the beginning of the game, that’s a big thing down here apparently. So we’re going to give it a go and have a lot of fun with that. If they win, they may involve me in their celebration, we’ll see,” Ayres said.
Ayres is not scheduled to dress for another NHL team. He says he will be back at the MAC on Thursday.
At 42 years old, Ayres hasn’t said anything about retiring any time soon. Looking back on his journey to the NHL, he knows exactly how he wants to be remembered.
“You want to be more than just the Zamboni driver. You want to be known as someone who worked hard and made it to where he wanted to. Even if it was for half a game.”