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The Canadian Press photo by Frank Gunn via AP / Carolina Hurricanes right wing Nino Niederreiter, center, and center Martin Necas speak to emergency goalie David Ayres as he takes the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period of Saturday's game in Toronto.

As all-time hockey memories go, what 42-year-old David Ayres accomplished Saturday night in Toronto will never eclipse — at least not in this country — what the United States did at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, with the 40th anniversary of that event celebrated this past weekend.

That win over the USSR hockey team — a 4-3 stunner that led to a triumph over Finland for the gold medal two days later — was correctly dubbed the Miracle On Ice after Al Michaels, calling the game for ABC, exclaimed in the final seconds of that shocking, surreal, unforgettable victory, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes-s-s!"

Yet for the sports daydreamer in all of us, for each of us who has ever imagined striking out the side in the ninth inning to clinch the World Series, or hitting a 3-pointer to win an NCAA title, or scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, what Ayres pulled off for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Toronto Maple Leafs was at least something of a minor miracle as it pertains to professional sports.

Or do you think literally being summoned from the stands to become the goalie of record midway through a regular-season NHL game, then somehow stopping eight of 10 shots on goal, is nothing to get excited about?

"He probably dreams of playing in the National Hockey League," said the Hurricanes' Warren Foegele, who scored twice in Carolina's improbable 6-3 victory. "What a moment for him. Something he'll never forget, and something we won't either."

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The Canadian Press photo by Frank Gunn via AP / Carolina Hurricanes players congratulate emergency goaltender David Ayres after they beat the host Toronto Maple Leafs 6-3 on Saturday.

Dig deeper, and it's not quite as happenstance as it sounds. Ayres didn't win a raffle or anything. He's actually the on-call emergency goalie in Toronto, which means he could have taken the ice for either team if injuries wiped out their goalies before the end of the game, which is exactly what happened to Carolina.

In fact, he's been the regular practice goalie for Toronto's minor league affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, for the past eight years, as well as being a Zamboni driver and arena maintenance worker for the Marlies. He has also occasionally worked out with the Leafs.

But Ayres also had a kidney transplant 15 years ago and feared he might never play hockey again. And while he had worked out on that same ice at Scotiabank Arena many times when it was empty, he said of live action in front of a large crowd: "Put fans in the mix and it's a whole different game, obviously."

Maybe, but after surrendering goals on the first two shots he faced, he stopped the last eight, which means Ayres got credit for the win. Beyond that, he became the oldest goalie in league history to win his regular-season debut.

It all began when the Hurricanes' starting goalie for the evening, James Reimer, went down in the first period with a lower body injury. In his place came Petr Mrazek. Sitting in the stands with his wife at the time of Reimer's exit, Ayres headed to the locker room area and got half-dressed in goalie's gear. Just in case.

Ayres was sitting in the media room when he "had a couple of text messages that told me to get in there. I hadn't seen the footage (of Mrazek's injury). I was in the media room by myself, and a guy came in and said, 'Get going. Get ready.'"

A period and a half later, the Sportsnet broadcast team named him its No. 1 star of the game.

"It was awesome," Ayres told reporters afterward. I had the time of my life out there. "(The players) said to me, 'Have fun with it, don't worry about how many goals go in, this is your moment, have fun with it.'"

Everyone involved with the Hurricanes had fun when it was over. Ayres was greeted by teammates spraying him with bottles of water when he entered the locker room after his TV interviews. Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour devoted his entire postgame comments to Ayres.

Before he left the ice, the Toronto crowd, the same one that had just watched him help defeat their Leafs, gave him a loud ovation.

Again, this is one-tenth of 1% as historically significant as the Miracle on Ice, though the fact that a program titled "Relive the Miracle," originally planned for the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday afternoon, was canceled due to poor ticket sales shows even the most storied upset in American sports history can somewhat lose its luster after 40 years.

Then again, when Michaels and the vast majority of that gold medal-winning squad was introduced prior to Saturday night's game between the host Vegas Golden Knights and the Florida Panthers, a sellout crowd loudly chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" as if it was that 1980 Friday night in Lake Placid all over again.

To think that most of us will long remember Ayres' 28 minutes and 41 seconds on ice is surely folly.

Just don't expect the Hurricanes to forget it any time soon.

"It's pretty special," Brind'Amour said. "I told the guys after the game, 'Thank him because that just gave (us) an incredible memory.'"

And whether it be a major miracle for the masses or a minor one for a few, isn't the making of an incredible memory what all sports are about?

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

 

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