Arguably the feel-good story of the NHL season took place Saturday night in Toronto, where Carolina Hurricanes emergency backup goalie David Ayres made an unlikely debut and defeated the hometown Maple Leafs.
Ayres, 42, had a kidney transplant in 2004 and once served as a Zamboni driver with the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League franchise. But when Hurricanes starter James Reimer got hurt and backup Petr Mrazek was shelved by a second-period collision, Ayres became just the third emergency goalie used in modern league history and the oldest to win a regular-season debut.
All home teams are required to have emergency goalies on standby at the rink, but they rarely play and usually are paid only in memorabilia. Ayres, who had played rep hockey in Ontario and had tryouts for various junior teams, had been a goalie during Marlies and Leafs practices and was even an emergency backup in some AHL contests.
But he’d never played in a pro game. After entering with a 4-1 lead and getting beaten by the first two Leafs shots, Ayres stopped eight straight, and the Hurricanes went on to a 6-3 victory.
Now, like most feats in century-old professional sports, even something this amazing has actually been done before. In this case, there’s a bona fide Seattle connection to a story of an even older emergency backup coming in to win a Stanley Cup Final game for the New York Rangers against the Montreal Maroons.
That’s right. Legendary Seattle Metropolitans founder Lester Patrick was the Rangers’ coach and general manager in 1928, when, in Game 2 of the final, goalie Lorne Chabot was struck in the eye by a second-period shot — no masks in those days — and had to leave.
NHL teams back then didn’t carry backup goalies, but it was customary to be allowed to use emergency ones on-site. Ottawa Senators goalie Alex Connell was actually a spectator in the Montreal Forum that day, so Patrick asked permission to use him.
But in one of the greater examples of poor sportsmanship found outside of a New England Patriots video crew or Houston Astros trash-can band, Maroons coach Eddie Gerard denied him permission. Gerard also denied Patrick use of a minor-league goalie named Hugh McCormick.
Gerard’s team already led the best-of-five series 1-0 and he figured they’d easily claim their second Stanley Cup in three seasons if Patrick couldn’t use a pro-level goalie. Patrick was infuriated and railed about the situation to his players.
They suggested Patrick — a former Pacific Coast Hockey Association defenseman for the Metropolitans and other teams who’d tended goal a few times when his goalie had been penalized — try on Chabot’s equipment. It fit him well, so he reluctantly took the ice at age 44 — two years older than Ayres — to finish the game.
With his team blocking shots left and right — much like the Hurricanes for Ayres on Saturday — Patrick stopped the less-dangerous attempts. New York scored in the third period to take a 1-0 lead, but a harmless-looking shot along the ice rolled under Patrick’s blocker to tie things late.
In sudden-death overtime, the Rangers again kept blocking shots while Patrick handled some easier ones. Then, Frank Boucher scored the winner for New York, and the Rangers poured over the boards to mob not Boucher, but their goalie.
Patrick was triumphantly carried off the ice, and the NHL did the right thing by allowing the Rangers to use New York Americans goalie Joe Miller the rest of the way. The Rangers rallied to win the Cup in five games and cement Patrick’s legend and Hall of Fame credentials.
Which kind of tops Ayres’ big-picture contribution. Though, it’s worth remembering: Ayres had never been in a pro hockey game before, and that would likely have intimidated him beyond what Patrick faced.
Also, while the stakes weren’t as high, an emergency backup defeating the Leafs has caused all kinds of angst among Toronto hockey watchers. Which, for those uninitiated on the NHL, is pretty much a Monday-to-Friday affair for one of the most over-analyzed, least-accomplished franchises in modern sport.
Remember, the Leafs, picked by some to win the Stanley Cup, fired coach Mike Babcock in November because he supposedly wasn’t getting enough out of his well-paid young players despite three consecutive playoff appearances and two straight 100-point seasons. It was only later a story leaked about Babcock having played ill-advised “mind games” three years prior with rookie Mitch Marner.
The resulting social-media uproar triggered the broader, more serious physical and racial coaching abuse allegations against Bill Peters and led the NHL toward one of its bigger scandals in recent memory. But while the Marner leak temporarily distracted from why Babcock was actually fired — lagging team performance — some of the heat previously taken off Toronto’s front office is now being turned up again full blast. The Leafs hold a playoff spot by a precarious two points, and the last thing needed was an Ayres feel-good moment becoming their latest feel-awful weekend.
As for Patrick’s Cup-stealing impact on the Maroons, bad sport coach Gerard resigned one season later. Though Gerard later coached them again, he never made another Cup final, and the Maroons soon folded.
Gerard, however, sits alongside Patrick in the Hall of Fame, having won a then-record four straight Cups as a player. Added to Gerard’s one championship as a coach, that’s five more Cups than the hard-up Leafs have the past 52 years. And five more than they’ll win anytime soon if they keep getting beat by 42-year-old ex-Zamboni drivers.