By Andrew Both
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) – Part-time ice hockey goalie David Ayres had never been to North Carolina, but he arrived an instant statewide hero, was declared an honorary citizen by the governor, and was suitably feted before the Carolina Hurricanes’ home game on Tuesday.
The “emergency goalie” visited the North Carolina capital Raleigh as a guest of the Hurricanes, part of a whirlwind tour after the feel-good story of his heroics against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.
Some 60 hours later, a tired but still upbeat Ayres, together with wife Sarah, met the media at Raleigh’s PNC arena on Tuesday, ahead of the evening’s festivities.
As part of the celebration, he sounded the pre-game siren and was introduced to the crowd to a rousing reception before the Hurricanes’ National Hockey League (NHL) contest against Dallas.
Quiet by nature, the 42-year-old kidney transplant recipient might not be a natural in the limelight but he is certainly a quick learner judging by his articulate manner and good humor.
“Celebrities, A-listers, and even hockey players that have people following them all over the place, it can’t be easy,” Ayres said.
“Usually they say goalies are the quiet ones and I definitely fit that stereotype. I’m fairly quiet, not really that outgoing but in a situation like this you learn to be.”
His wife Sarah added: “He’s coming up with new things (to say). With me it’s the exact same thing over and over again.”
OBSCURITY TO FAME
Ayres’ rapid journey from obscurity to fame started when he was called up from the stands after Carolina’s two regular goalies went down injured in Toronto on Saturday.
Ayres, a Canadian citizen, is a lifelong Leafs fan.
NHL regulations require an emergency goalie to be present at every game, usually a minor-leaguer just happy to have free tickets and a chance to hob-nob with the game’s rich and famous, and in rare circumstances to take the ice.
The emergency goalie is not employed by the home team, however, and can be called up to play for either team if needed.
So when Carolina’s two regular goalies were injured, Ayres changed out of his street clothes and entered the biggest cauldron of his sporting life with jittery nerves, and a realization he was probably getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a name for himself.
An hour or so later, he left the ice a hero, having stopped eight out of 10 shots as the Hurricanes won 6-3.
Ayres was whisked to New York on Monday for a full day of media commitments highlighted by an appearance on the CBS Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
At the end of his monologue, Colbert recapped Ayres’ fairytale story as a former driver of a Zamboni (a machine used to surface the ice), before the host feigned a hamstring strain and said he could not complete the segment.
At which time Ayres emerged from backstage and smoothly said: “Don’t worry Stephen, I got you,” to a prolonged ovation from an appreciate audience.
Then it was on to Raleigh, where Carolina fans had a chance to buy Ayres T-shirts, with the Hurricanes promising to donate royalties to Ayres and a local kidney foundation.
An hour before the game, hundreds of fans queued up on the concourse with freshly-purchased $28 T-shirts in hand to have them autographed by Ayres, who patiently worked the line for 30 minutes before heading downstairs to the rink.
Carolina fan Amanda Brown was brimming with excitement as she clutched her signed T-shirt, which she planned to give to an Australian friend due to visit town soon.
A kidney transplant in 2004 saved Ayres’ life.
“I just want everyone to know that just because you have a kidney transplant, or something like that, it’s not the end of the world,” he said.
“I know a lot of people fall into a depressed state or so on. I fell into that too when I had my transplant, I thought ‘no hockey, what am I going to go into’, it was kind of a shock to me.”
Ayres will return home on Wednesday and go back to his regular job as operations manager of the home arena of the Toronto Marlies minor league team.
He plans to be at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday as emergency goalie for Toronto’s NHL game against Vancouver.
As for whether he expected his story to be made into a movie or the subject of a book, Ayres said he had received a lot of pitches but had not had time to examine them.
“I have so many messages,” he said, before being asked whether he had an agent.
“No,” he replied. “Not yet.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Toby Davis and Tom Hogue)