David Ayres is still having trouble grasping the reality of Saturday night’s hockey game.
“The equipment guy came in and he said, ‘put your gear on, you’re going to go out there,’” he said.
Ayres earned his first career NHL win in relief and Warren Foegele scored twice as Carolina picked up an improbable 6-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday after the Hurricanes lost netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.
He was sitting with his wife Sarah at the game when he suddenly began to get several text messages telling him he would need to fill in for the Hurricanes.
Reimer started for the Hurricanes against his former team, but left with a lower-body injury in the first period after being bowled over in his crease. He was replaced by Mrazek, who made 31 saves in Friday’s 5-2 home loss to the New York Rangers. But Carolina’s second option was hurt in the middle period after a thunderous collision with Leafs winger Kyle Clifford as both players raced for the puck along the sideboards.
That forced Ayres — a 42-year-old ex-junior goalie and a Zamboni driver for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies available to both teams — into action for the rest of the game between two clubs battling for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.
It wasn’t long before he was walking down the tunnel and stepping into the spotlight.
“I didn’t expect the whole Carolina team waiting for me to get on the ice. I also didn’t expect the fans in Toronto to be cheering for me,” Ayres said.
“I wasn’t sure if they were cheering because I was going in and they’re like, ‘oh, this is an easy win for Toronto,’ or if they were cheering because I was wearing my Leaf’s gear.”
Ayres was off to a rough start, letting in the first couple of shots that came at him. But the 42-year-old pulled it together and saved the rest of the eight shots that were taken against him.
In doing so, Ayres helped lead the hurricanes to a brilliant 6-3 victory over the Leafs.
“You look around and you try and soak it in as much as possible,” the emergency goalie said.
“You’re never going to remember it all, but it was awesome.”
Ayres is especially grateful for the rare chance, having gone through several adversities in life, including a kidney transplant at the age of 27.
“If you can just go through something like that and get to a level you want to be at, it’s a lot of hard work, but there’s a lot of people behind me who helped me get this far.”
One of those people is his wife, Sarah, who has been overwhelmed by the amount of attention her husband has received.
“There’s a lot that’s gone on in the last 12 to 14 hours,” she said.
Sarah said her husband has been called to be an emergency back-up goalie a few times in the past, but this time was different.
“We normally hang out in the stands together and talk,” she said.
“When (Hurricanes goalie Petr) Mrázek got injured, things took a big turn.”
Although Sarah was overjoyed for her husband’s victory, during the game she could barely look up at the score because she was “so zoned into what he was doing.”
Meanwhile, the couple’s three children, Avery, Brayden and Colton were at home in Clarington, Ont., with their eyes peeled to the TV. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
“It was just a usual Saturday, (we were) not thinking that he (was) going to get called in, but it happened,” Avery said.
“We did not believe it was actually happening when we were watching it on TV (Saturday) night,” Brayden said.
Although most of Ayres’ neighbours did not know the backup goalie lived near them before Saturday night, they also reacted to the big news, calling the Zamboni driver a “hometown hero.”
“When the name came up, we actually Googled it and realized, ‘oh my god — that’s Dave from across the street,’” Samantha LaCroix said.
“I’d definitely consider him a hometown hero,” Katrina Winston said.
“I’m really proud of him!”