At 10 o’clock Monday morning, David Ayres said he was doing his sixth interview of the day.
A year after the fact, people still want to hear his story. They still want to hear about the night he put on his goalie gear in Toronto, went in net in an emergency and won an NHL game for the Carolina Hurricanes.
That the Canes beat the Maple Leafs that night, Feb. 22, 2020, is something Ayres is often reminded of in the Toronto area.
“Oh, yeah, like every day,” Ayres said Monday in an interview with the News & Observer. “Every single day. When people see me or message me they’ll say, ‘I hate you for beating the Leafs but the story was great.’”
And it was a great story. Ayres, then 42, was the emergency backup goalie at the game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Thrust into the game when Canes goalies James Reimer and then Petr Mrazek both were injured, he kept his emotions in check and held his poise as the Canes won 6-3.
“The thing that’s special to me is that when the players first saw me on the ice for the first time, how great they were,” Ayres said. “They were already on my side, not even knowing who I was. How they embraced having me on the ice with them and how they played so well in front of me, and we got the win, it was fantastic.”
Ayres was named the game’s first star and given a postgame ovation — in Toronto. He then was welcomed like a conquering hero in the Canes’ locker room, the short video of his entrance quickly going viral as his story spread.
Some referred to him simply as the “Zamboni driver” but that was misleading. It was learned the Whitby, Ontario, native had served for several years as a practice goalie for the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ AHL team, and, yes, had on occasion driven the Zamboni at the rink.
Since that night in Toronto, he also is a goalie of record in the National Hockey League and his record is 1-0. His goalie stick was sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
“I think I get emotional every time I see something about it,” Canes forward Jordan Martinook said Monday. “Still to this day, it’s kind of mind-boggling that it happened and the way it played out. When you think of the game of hockey you think of those feel-good moments.”
Martinook said he remembers looking at forward Brock McGinn on the bench when Ayres first came on the ice, wearing No. 90. They both then glanced over at Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour, who appeared downcast, dejected.
“There’s video of Roddy’s face that kind of tells the whole story,” Martinook said. “He was like rolling his eyes. I think all of us were excited for (Ayres) and everybody was kind of like, ‘OK, it’s going to be what it’s going to be and hopefully we can hold the fort down, but we’re not expecting much.’”
After winning the game, he went through a round of interviews with the network shows in New York. He was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, then Ayres and his wife, Sarah, came to Raleigh. It was officially proclaimed “David Ayres Day” in the city and Gov. Roy Cooper named him an honorary state citizen.
Ayres sounded the warning siren before the Feb. 25 game against Dallas and signed autographs. No. 90 jerseys soon were available in PNC Arena and in merchandising, with parts of the proceeds going to a kidney foundation of Ayres’ choice.
“The people there were unbelievable, so nice, so embracing,” Ayres said.
The coming of the pandemic put an end to the NHL’s regular season in March 2020, just a few weeks after the game. As a kidney transplant survivor, Ayres has had to be cautious in dealing with the coronavirus threat and possible COVID exposure.
“It’s been kind of crazy,” Ayres told the N&O. “Obviously we had a lot of stuff planned and we’re going to go to a lot of places, meet a lot of people, speaking, things like that. COVID shut that down but I have been able to do stuff online, virtually.
“We wanted to go back to Carolina, wanted to go back in March. COVID kind of slowed everything but we were able to do a lot more family stuff, so that was all good.”
Ayres said a Disney movie based on his story is in the works, although no title has been chosen. It’s a story, he said, to which people can relate: An average Joe suddenly in the spotlight and unexpectedly getting the opportunity of a lifetime.
One thing is for sure: He has had more than 15 minutes of fame. In June, NHL.com had fans vote on the “Greatest Moment of the NHL season ... So Far” and Ayres got more than 80% of the vote.
Ayres said he now works for CIMCO, a company specializing in ice-rink refrigeration technology. He said he still plays some pond hockey, laughing as he added, “Just trying to keep my game sharp.”
His plans for Monday night: watch the Hurricanes’ game against Tampa Bay. And reflect.
While Brind’Amour was groaning at first on that night last February, he could smile at the end of an unforgettable game and moment — and still does.
“It’s hard to believe that was a year ago because of what’s gone on in a year’s time,” Brind’Amour said. “Everything was good up until that day. We were normal and maybe took it for granted, that normal. And now here we are a year later and yet look how far we’ve come, even in a year, with everything.
“My memories of that are all good because it turned out well. I like the fact we’re still talking about it. It’s a memory that I think we’ll all cherish, really.”
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