YORKTON - When it comes to unusual tales from sport few can match a Zamboni driver donning goalie gear and going into an NHL game and winning.
“David Ayres’ eyes lit up and he smiled,” writes Stephen Whyno in his recent book ‘Odd Man In’ from Triumph Books.
“Am I going in?” he asked.
“Watching the Hurricanes play his hometown Maple Leafs on his phone in a locker room by himself in the bowels of the arena in Toronto, Ayres saw Carolina goaltender Petr Mrazek get run over and lie face down on the ice in distress. Hurricanes director of team services Pace Sagester saw the same thing and burst through the door, but even he wasn’t yet sure what was happening.
“The two had never met, and suddenly they were huddled over Ayres’ phone watching to see what was happening a few hundred feet away on the ice. When they saw Mrazek doubled over in pain with head athletic trainer Doug Bennett guiding him to the tunnel, they looked at each other and knew it was time.
“Hockey Night in Canada buddy,” Sagester said. “No big deal. You’re going in.”
The Ayers story made headlines, putting him and the sport of hockey clearly in the spotlight, at least briefly.
But it was almost a tongue-in-cheek not to a sport which, at least across most of the U.S. where the majority of teams are, remains something of a sports afterthought.
In this case the notoriety Ayres created really boils down to one of the most ridiculous things in all of sport, forcing pro teams to turn to goaltenders that never made it in times of emergency –when both their dressed netminders are out of the game.
But Ayres’ story, and others of the rather small fraternity of EBUGs (Emergency Back-Up Goaltenders) is the stuff of a fine story, one author Whyno was more than willing to take on.
The ‘Odd Man In’ percolated in Whyno’s mind for a few years before becoming a reality.
It actually started out, sort of, from a single magazine article on emergency goalies.
It came about from a discussion where the emergency goaltender was determined “to be the weirdest thing in sport” and from that came the suggestion “why don’t you do a story on this,” explained Whyno in a recent interview with this reporter.
The story would win an award, but the story was not complete.
Whyno said as the impact of emergency goaltenders such as Scott Foster and Ayers made headlines he knew there was more story to tell.
“I thought it could end up being way more than a story,” he said, adding he envisioned a longer feature, when he finally sat down to take on the expanded story it evolved into a book.
What makes the story of course is how “absurd” the idea is that a guy with no NHL experience can suddenly be thrown into the net in a game where teams are fighting for points.
The closest comparison might be a position player sent into pitch in the late innings of a major league game, but Whyno said even in those situations games are typical lopsided affairs and the player is in for “garbage time”.
In hockey “these are close games. They’re not just trying to mop up games,” he noted.
So, it is essentially a very average player thrown into an NHL game which has long been the dream of hockey players everywhere.
Whyno said the use of inexperienced goalies as emergency fill-ins doesn’t seem to make sense “but no one has a better answer.”
It might seem simple enough, teams could carry a third pro netminder, but getting practice time and playing time to give a third netminder, someone you hope can be part of your program longer term, is near impossible, said Whyno, making a guy from some rec league at least a body who knows the position.
“It’s something of an imperfect solution,” he added.
Again from the book; “Scott Foster saw a jersey with his name on it hanging in the Chicago Blackhawks locker room and made the decision right away – he would put on all his goaltending gear, so he could slip the jersey on top.
“The 36-year-old accountant who played hockey in a couple of beer leagues figured this was the best it could possibly get, so he wasn’t doing anything halfway. Foster dressed like he was in the National Hockey League, sat with Blackhawk players in their lounge at United Center, and watched the game happening on the ice against the Winnipeg Jets.
“Foster had done the emergency backup goaltender thing more than a dozen times already that season, but on March 29, 2018, he had to be ready at a moment’s notice because the Blackhawks only had one healthy goalie in uniform. When Collin Delia went down after making a save almost six minutes into the third period and had to be helped off the ice, Foster froze. He didn’t hear the equipment manager telling him to grab his mask, blocker, and gloves and get ready to go in the game.”
While the Foster and Ayers stories have been generally good news ones Whyno said one day an emergency goalie will go in and get blitzed for a basket of goals and then there will likely be a call to change the system.
Even in the case of Ayers, when he gave up two quick goals to Toronto people around the NHL were going bonkers.
But when Carolina steadied things “playing maybe the best game ever in the NHL,” it became a hugely positive thing for the league, said Whyno.
“It is great publicity when it goes well,” he said.
As it stands though, most emergency goalies simply dress in case the back-up goes down after they have been forced into action by an injury to the starter. Few – three – get into action for meaningful time.
Foster in 2018, Ayres in 2020, and Tom Hodges in 2022 were the only emergency backup goaltenders to see meaningful action in a game since the NHL instituted the two-goalie system in 1965.
“It’s such a rare occurrence,” said Whyno, adding it has become a very exclusive fraternity “that knows what it feels like.”
In fact, Whyno likened it to people who know what it is like to have walked on the moon.