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Sports Authority

Kramer: The Legacy of David Ayres

| Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Amidst this 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, on Feb. 22, I find myself reminiscing on the unimaginable, improbable and altogether ridiculous sports underdogs of memory. Tim Tebow rising to the occasion with the unlikeliest of touchdowns against the Steelers, and analyst Stephen A. Smith having absolutely none of it. Stefon Diggs stumbling, spinning and charging for the end zone in Minneapolis. Loyola Chicago stunning the nation in its Cinderella run during March Madness. The rise of “Linsanity.” The hysteria of the “Kick Six.”

But with the past decade — and that 1980 gold medal — behind us, America deserves a new hero. No matter the colors we bleed, we deserve a champion that blurs the otherwise jagged team lines in a magical start to the decade’s greatest sports moments.

This NHL season, veteran Zamboni driver David Ayres gave us exactly that.

A hockey fanatic at heart, Ayres refused to leave the game that shaped him in Toronto. A kidney transplant in 2004 quickly halted his young goaltending career, leaving him with little attention from professional programs after the surgery. Clawing for an opportunity, he earned a nod from the Maple Leafs’ amateur affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, as a regular practice goalie. Alongside his small role on the ice, he built up a strong career as a rink maintenance worker and Zamboni driver for the Marlies.

As he aged, Ayres relentlessly clung to a distant fantasy of taking the ice with his beloved Maple Leafs. Refusing to retire in his forties, he caught the attention of the Maple Leafs coaching staff, who incorporated him into a number of practices earlier this season. Before the Leafs’ matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes last Saturday, head coach Sheldon Keefe asked Ayres, now 42, to act as an emergency goalie for either team, should the opportunity arise.

Within the first two periods, both Hurricane goalies left the game with injuries, leaving a desperate Carolina squad with Ayres. Racing to the locker room, an equipment manager frantically stitched his name on a blank No. 90 jersey. Trusted Whalers helmet and all, Ayres took the ice in front of a wild Scotiabank Arena crowd.

The second period brought his first career NHL start, one that came with evident nerves. A scorching wrist shot from Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares near the right circle snuck past him, and left winger Pierre Engvall buried a rebound just minutes later. By the end of the period, the Hurricanes’ two-goal lead collapsed, leaving the team with a 3-3 tie moving into intermission.

But Ayers was unfazed. He promised his new teammates a strong showing in the third, and he did not disappoint. In shocking fashion, he stopped all eight Maple Leafs shots and manned the defensive helm all the way to a 6-3 road victory.

The Hurricanes paid Ayres chump change for his efforts: $500 and rights to his game jersey. But for a man with so much love for the game that brought the nation together in 1980, I suspect that this decade’s miracle on ice gives him, and all of us, a memory that is unswervingly, unbelievably and timelessly priceless.

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