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A Zamboni Driver’s Moment In The NHL Spotlight Inspires Ordinary People To Keep Dreaming

Dave Ayres

Last Saturday, Feb. 22, was the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice.” If you recall, back in 1980, the U.S. Olympic hockey team, made up of amateurs, defeated the mighty Soviet Union’s team in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. The U.S. team then went on to win the Olympic gold medal.

In the words of James Freeman of the Wall Street Journal, that miracle on ice “inspired Americans to believe that we could beat the commies outside the rink, too.” As if we needed a reminder that once in a while a game is more than a game, another miracle took place on the ice in Toronto last Saturday night.

The Carolina Hurricanes were playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Leafs’ home rink. Winning this game would be especially important to the Canes because it would earn them a playoff position with just a few weeks left in the season. So you can imagine the devastation the Canes’ coach, players, and fans felt when both the Canes’ regular goalie, James Reimer, and backup goalie, Petr Mrázek, were injured, and the team had to call an emergency backup goaltender, or EBUG, in the middle of the second of the game’s three periods.

What Is an EBUG?

EBUGs exist because NHL rules demand that each hockey team dress only 20 players per game, including two goalies. When both goalies cannot play, the team can turn to an emergency goalie. EBUG eligibility requirements aren’t high. Since they only get paid when they actually take part in a game, which is extremely rare, no professional players ever serve as EBUGs, and most teams don’t have an EBUG on staff.

Instead, EBUGs are amateurs who usually play hockey as a hobby. They get to attend hockey games for free and spend most of their time eating, drinking, and cheering for their favorite teams like any regular fans. When a team needs an emergency goalie, however, the EBUG in attendance will suit up and play at a moment’s notice. The NHL rule also dictates that the home team provide an EBUG who can fill in for either team.

So on Saturday night, after the Canes lost two goalies, the home team, the Leafs, provided the Canes as EBUG the 42-year-old Dave Ayres, a Toronto native, Zamboni driver, and arena maintenance employee for the Leafs’ minor league affiliate.

Ayres is a lifelong hockey fan. He dreamed of playing professional hockey. But in 2004, he nearly died due to kidney failure before his mother, Mary, donated one of her kidneys to save his life. Everyone, including Ayres, thought he would never play professional hockey. His most recent competitive experience before Saturday night was playing an eight-game series with the Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League, several levels below even the minor league.

According to ESPN, Ayres “allowed 58 goals and had a .777 save percentage and an 0-8 record.” You don’t have to know hockey to understand that’s not a very good record. But who could blame him? Ayres spends most of his days maintaining the Mattamy Athletic Centre and helping coach a youth hockey league.

Ayres’ Dreams Come True

Yet last Saturday night, fate presented this ordinary person the biggest opportunity and challenge in his life: being an emergency goalie in the middle of an NHL game for a team he has no affinity for. His outfit was a mix of the two teams’ color schemes: a white and red Canes jersey with his name sewn on last minute, and a Maple Leaf-blue mask and pants.

Ayres and his unmatched outfit seemed so out of place in the middle of the arena. He didn’t have much time to think or even warm up his legs. The game was on, and it was show time. The Canes had a 3-1 lead when Ayres stepped on ice. Ayres let two quick goals in. By the end of the second period, the Canes’ lead had shrunk to 4-3. Ayres’ wife, Sarah, was live tweeting while her husband was on the ice. She was clearly freaking out.

Ayres told reporters later that the Canes players were kind and supportive, which helped him calm down. Left wing Erik Haula told Ayres, “Just have fun. We don’t care if you let 10 goals in.” Before the start of the third period, according to Ayres, all the Canes players said, “Let’s do it for Dave. Let’s get out there and really play hard here in the third.” Ayres was so touched by the camaraderie, he decided he couldn’t let these guys down. He “wanted to go out there and give it everything I got until the final buzzer.”

And he did. During the third period, Ayres made eight miraculous saves, and the Canes won the game 6-3. Even Maple Leafs fans cheered him on. Upon entering the locker room, he got a nice shower of Gatorade when Canes’ players celebrated him as one of their own. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour thanked Ayres for giving the team a memory of their lifetime.

Ayres had the time of his life too. Since his kidney transplant, his hockey dream seemed like nothing more — until his dream was realized in the most dramatic fashion. His wife was ecstatic on Twitter.

Ayres became the second EBUG in recent NHL history to save the day in mind-blowing fashion. Back in March 2018, Scott Foster, an accountant in Chicago, served as an EBUG in a Blackhawks game and helped the team win after making seven saves. Like Foster, Ayres became a legend, rising from ordinary to extraordinary.

According to the NHL rule, Ayres would be paid $500 for his one-time participation and get to keep the jersey with his name on it. But the Canes got an exception for him. Now jerseys bearing him name are on sale in the team store, a first in recent NHL history. Not only will Ayres receive lifetime royalties, the Canes will also donate a portion of the sale to a charity that supports kidney transplants. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also tweeted that he was ready to make Ayres, a Canadian, an honorary North Carolina citizen.

Ayres Is Just Like All of Us

Like many of you, I watch sports mostly to appreciate competition between people with exceptional talents. Stars such as Kobe Bryant always inspire me to do whatever I am doing a little bit better. Sports stories such as those of Ayres and Foster are also inspiring, but in a different way.

Ayers and Foster are just like all the rest of us, with relatable lives before their overnight success. Most of us do not have extraordinary talents either. It is easy to feel like “life is but an empty dream.” Sometimes we are so beaten down by life’s disappointments, tragedies, and even its mundane routines that, like a bird with a broken wing, we stop pursuing.

Then we see someone ordinary thrown into the most challenging situation and excel against all odds. When we jumped to our feet to cheer on Ayres, we cheered ourselves on too. When our emotion was overflowing for Ayres’s story, part of it was for ourselves too. Stories like Ayres’s remind us that whatever we have now doesn’t have to be “it.” We can do more, live more meaningful lives, and have a bigger impact in our circles as long as we keep trying, and never give up on our dreams.

One of my favorite poems, “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, summarizes this feeling:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day. …

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.