Located behind the couch where the goalie sits to watch Hurricanes games is a locker he set up to pay tribute to the team that provided him the biggest thrill of his hockey career.
“It’s one of the biggest moments of my life, and I wanted to make sure it was acknowledged front and center,” he said. “It’s hard to think it was that long ago.”
The 42-year-old became the first emergency backup goalie to win an NHL game when the Hurricanes defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-3 at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 22. He made eight saves in the final 28:41 of the game after Carolina goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer each left because of injury.
It was the only NHL game he’s played.
Now, 173 days later, he was getting set to watch Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Hurricanes and Boston Bruins at his home in Bowmanville, Ontario, 50 miles east of Toronto, the hub city for the Eastern Conference. Because of COVID-19, viewing parties are a no-no, so Ayres invited NHL.com to join him virtually via Zoom.
The locker is in full view and contains all sorts of memorabilia.
“The equipment I used in that game is set up in the front,” Ayres said. “There’s an autographed stick in there from goalie James Reimer, who’s such a great guy. And there’s a white Canes jersey like the one I wore that night that the team gave me, autographed by all the Carolina fans.
“It’s so cool.”
However, his choice of wardrobe on this night did not include a Carolina shirt, and for good reason.
He and wife Sarah had planned to watch Game 1 on Tuesday, but it was pushed back to Wednesday at 11 a.m. because the previous game at Scotiabank Arena, a 3-2 victory by the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Columbus Blue Jackets, went five overtimes.
“Sarah had booked us a round of golf for Wednesday at a nice course called Baxter Creek, so I put on a Canes golf shirt and away we went,” he said. “We brought speakers and listened to the game in the cart.”
The result wasn’t what they’d hoped for. The Bruins defeated the Hurricanes 4-3 in double overtime to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
It was time for Ayres to change the karma.
“The Canes shirt wasn’t bringing me luck, so I decided to go with a (Toronto) Marlies shirt and a Canes cap for Game 2,” he said in reference to the American Hockey League affiliate of the Maple Leafs.
Mission accomplished. The Hurricanes defeated the Bruins 3-2 to even the series.
“The look worked,” he said afterward. “It’s going to be a thing. We’ll be at our cottage in Parry Sound (Ontario, hometown of Bobby Orr) for Game 3 on Saturday (Noon ET; NBC, SN, TVAS), and you can bet I’ll be wearing the same things.”
Ayres spent eight years as the Marlies practice goalie and the past three in the same role for the Maple Leafs. He’d also occasionally drive the ice resurfacing machine at Marlies games, and said he’s been the emergency backup goalie at Scotiabank Arena for more than half the NHL games there the past two seasons.
As Reimer skated onto the ice in Toronto for Game 2, the memories of his historic night came flooding back to Ayres.
“It reminded me of when I skated out in that game after their goalies, Reimer and Petr Mrazek, got hurt,” Ayres said. “Same rink. Same entrance. Same bench. And they’re wearing the same white Canes jerseys they wore that night.”
Making the matchup a bit difficult for him was that the Hurricanes were playing the Bruins, the team he grew up rooting for. His favorite player was goalie Andy Moog, who won 136 games with Boston from 1987-93.
“I loved watching him play,” he said. “But obviously I’m pulling for the Hurricanes.”
The next three hours proved to be a roller coaster of emotions.
It was a 2-2 game when Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton scored at 8:30 of the third period. Ayres said his nerves were put to the test in the final seconds when Reimer was channeling his inner Dominik Hasek, flopping in his crease and doing snow angels while the Bruins were buzzing around the Carolina net in an unsuccessful attempt to tie the score.
“That’s not really Reimer’s style, but he did whatever he had to to keep the puck out,” Ayres said. “As a goalie I can appreciate that.
“What a great win.”
Ayres said he’s in frequent contact with Mike Sundheim and Pace Sagester of the Hurricanes public relations department. He also exchanges texts with team analyst Tripp Tracy.
“I like to keep track and get the inside word of what’s going on with the guys,” he said.
Given his relationship with the team, the city of Raleigh and the state of North Carolina, it’s easy to see why.
On Feb. 25, Gov. Roy Cooper declared Ayres, a Canadian citizen, an honorary citizen of North Carolina. The city of Raleigh declared Feb. 25 “David Ayres Day.”
Ayres, who became the oldest goalie (42 years, 194 days) to win his NHL regular-season debut, became an overnight sensation after helping the Hurricanes defeat Toronto. There were TV appearances on “Today” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and countless interviews with various media outlets.
Ayres hasn’t forgotten how he was embraced. Because of that, he said he hopes to return to Carolina later this year.
“I’m cheering for the Canes to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “And if they do, you can bet I’m heading down there for the parade.