Let’s pitch a movie script. Hockey theme.
OK, so, there’s a Zamboni driver, a little pudgy, big smile. He’s an over-the-hill goalie, age 42. Works at the practice rink for the Maple Leafs. Sometimes he even gets to practice with them, but the NHL feels a long way away.
He’s sitting in the stands one Saturday night, sharing a Reuben with his wife and watching the Leafs play the Hurricanes. One Carolina goalie gets hurt. Then another goes down. Halfway through the game, they need a netminder.
It’s up to him: the beer leaguer, the dreamer, playing an NHL game . . . in the heat of the playoff race, on “Hockey Night in Canada,” against his favorite team. He’s Canadian, but it’s 40 years to the day of the “Miracle on Ice.”
He lets in the first two shots he sees, but his new team rallies around him. He stops the next eight shots, gets the win and a standing ovation, and the Hurricanes shower him with bubbly liquids in the dressing room. Meanwhile, T-shirts with his name and new number (90) are selling out online, the proceeds benefiting his charity of choice. Fifteen years ago, he got a kidney transplant from his mom.
That is the true story of David Ayres, all of which unfolded last Saturday night in Toronto. From Section 317 to the first star of the game, he became the patron saint of emergency backup goalies. Officially 1-0 in his NHL career, his stops this past week included the “Today” show, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and the Hockey Hall of Fame, where he donated his stick.
“It’s got a Rudy effect to it,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said. “It was great theater.”
In Vancouver that night, three hours behind Toronto time, the Bruins were preparing to face the Canucks. Reporters, scouts, and team employees gathered around televisions in the press box, some openly rooting for this Walter Mitty in blue and white pads. The Bruins, the Leafs’ rivals, were doing the same at ice level.
“The first two shots go in, you’re thinking, ‘He works for the [expletive] Marlies!’ ” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said of Ayres, who is operations manager at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre, where the AHL’s Marlies play, though not technically a team employee. “If he let in every shot, I would have been through the roof.”
Emergency backup goalies (EBUGs) such as Ayres are on call every night in the NHL. At least one emergency backup goalie sits in the stands, typically paid nothing more than a free ticket, in case goalies are incapacitated. Some practice with the team, but they almost never dress for games.
Since 1966, when the league mandated that teams must dress two goalies, an EBUG hadn’t faced a shot until Scott Foster, a 36-year-old Chicago accountant, made seven saves for the Blackhawks against the Jets in March 2018. Ayres, who played 29 minutes, was the first to get a win.
When NHL GMs meet beginning Monday in Boca Raton, Fla., they will discuss the league’s EBUG regulations, which are minimal (they cannot be team employees; they sign one-day tryout contracts). Are changes needed, based on those improbable cases? A better question: In this era of workload management for goalies (see: Tuukka Rask, on pace for 48 starts), should teams pay a third goalie a modest salary, like a traveling bullpen catcher?
Cassidy feels GMs shouldn’t overcorrect based on one over-40 amateur stealing the show.
“It’s so rare,” Cassidy said. “They should just enjoy the moment this year. It got a lot of positive buzz for hockey, so let’s not overthink it.”
About once a month, the Providence Bruins ask former University of Rhode Island netminder Joe Spagnoli to practice, if a regular is unwell or a call-up is delayed. The 36-year-old from Cranston, R.I, has a regular seat at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and dressed a handful of times since 2015, mostly for visiting teams. Providence coach Jay Leach said practices are more fun when “Spags” is there, and not because players score more.
“There’s something to be said for someone that loves hockey that much,” Leach said. “I would hope that every one of my players has that love of the game. And if not, they’d see him and think of how lucky they are to be able to play pro hockey.
“It’s just a nice break from time to time. It would be a shame, in my opinion, if they got rid of it.”
In the NHL’s early years, teams dressed one goaltender, who almost always played the whole game. Backups came off the street, such as former Boston University star Johnny Aiken, who regularly practiced with the Bruins and replaced an injured Don Simmons in one 1958 game. The year before in Detroit, Red Wings trainer Ross “Lefty” Wilson suited up for the Bruins, and allowed one goal in 52 minutes in a 2-2 tie.
Though position players pitch occasionally in baseball, they don’t have to dress in goalie gear. The last skater to appear in goal was Bruins right winger Jerry Toppazzini, who replaced Simmons for the last 30 seconds of a game against the Blackhawks in 1960.
Former Bruins goalie coach Joe Bertagna (1985-91), who played at Harvard, said he practiced with the Bruins “three or four times” when a goalie was sick or injured and a replacement from the AHL’s Maine Mariners couldn’t arrive in time.
“I did OK in scrimmages,” said Bertagna, 68, the Hockey East commissioner. “I could follow the puck, I could use my head. I held my own.”
Shooting drills were another story. Bertagna recalled Cam Neely, at one practice, lining up pucks in the high slot and firing, one after the other.
“Toe drag . . . snap . . . toe drag . . . snap . . . I think he put eight in a row, over my left shoulder, under the crossbar,” Bertagna said. “He said, ‘Are you actually trying to stop these?’ Yeah, but I’m a 37-year-old, slightly overweight goalie coach.”
Today, teams find their EBUGs through word of mouth (“It’s not like they post it in the Boston Globe: ‘We need a goalie’ ” Cassidy mused). Goalie coach Bob Essensa keeps a half-dozen names on retainer.
Before the NHL altered its rules before the 2017-18 season — all teams must have at least one EBUG available, no team employees allowed — Essensa got the call.
In March, 2015, “Goalie Bob,” age 50 and some 13 years after NHL retirement, donned No. 70 when Rask fell ill against the Rangers. He sat stoically on the bench as backup Niklas Svedberg finished the game.
Keith Segee, a 13-year Massachusetts state trooper who played at Salem State, has practiced with the team several times in recent years. The Lynnfield resident was almost needed on Jan. 19, 2019, when Rangers winger Filip Chytil knocked Rask out of the game.
Segee dressed and sat in the locker room, ready to go. Meanwhile, the Bruins knew that former goalie Andrew Raycroft, the 2003-04 Calder Trophy winner, was working in the building as a NESN analyst and was on the Bruins’ EBUG list. Between commercial breaks, Raycroft was giving directions to a Bruins staffer, who was traveling to his suburban home to get his gear. He had barely worn it since retiring in 2014.
“I was new to TV, so I was trying to do a decent job at that,” recalled Raycroft, 39. “My heart was going 200 miles per hour.”
Ayres can relate. And amateur puck-stoppers everywhere, for now, can dream.
CUP WILL HAVE TO WAIT
Thornton makes decision to stay
Patrice Bergeron rarely seems surprised by anything, but this registered as surprise.
“I thought he wanted to get out and chase it,” Bergeron said. “Whatever he wanted, I hope he’s happy with the decision. He’s an amazing, tremendous guy.”
Bergeron was talking about Joe Thornton, his Bruins teammate some 14 years ago. In the busiest NHL trade deadline on record (32 deals), the lovable graybeard was not among those on the move last Monday.
Rather than free him to chase his long-awaited Stanley Cup, the Sharks could not find a taker for the 40-year-old pivot. Contenders Boston, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Colorado, and Vegas didn’t want Thornton (4-23—27 in 64 games this season) in their bottom six, even though he’d have come cheap.
Meanwhile, Thornton’s longtime teammate, Patrick Marleau, went to the Penguins. There are four players in history who appeared in 1,500 games without a Cup. Two of them — Jarome Iginla (1,554) and Shane Doan (1,540) — are retired. Marleau (1,716) has played the most. Second most: Thornton (1,630). Here’s hoping Thornton has enough for another run elsewhere next season. Or in San Jose, if the Sharks (28th in the league as of Friday) can somehow turn this thing around over the summer.
Other thoughts from deadline day:
■ If their injured players don’t come back strong, contenders Colorado (Nazem Kadri) and St. Louis (Vladimir Tarasenko) might regret not dealing for Chris Kreider (though he suffered a fractured foot Friday night). Nashville, fighting for a wild-card spot, will regret not doing more than adding Korbinian Holzer. Dallas, which did nothing, might be fine.
■ Good on the Rangers for signing Kreider long term (seven years, $45.5 million), even though Henrik Lundqvist won’t be around long enough to see what the Blueshirts build around him.
■ Tampa Bay made significant upgrades to its middle six (Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman) and bought low on blue liner Zach Bogosian. Will the Lightning regret trading top prospect Nolan Foote and a pair of first-round picks? Not if they hoist the Cup.
■ Big move in Vegas, adding 2018-19 Vezina finalist Robin Lehner to battle with Marc-Andre Fleury. The Golden Knights, who fired Gerard Gallant amid a run of poor goaltending (the reason many coaches get fired), have few weaknesses. They could use another top-four defenseman, and no, Kings refugee Alec Martinez is not that.
■ Toronto got involved in the Lehner deal, a three-way trade with Chicago and Vegas. So don’t say the Leafs haven’t addressed their goaltending issues. Tense in Leafland these days.
■ The Bruins could win big if Ondrej Kase stays healthy. He’s young (24), talented, and cheap ($2.6 million). The other deal with the Ducks, Nick Ritchie for Danton Heinen, feels like a wash. Heinen is more skilled, Ritchie’s harder to play against.
■ Ottawa got a haul from the Islanders for Jean-Gabriel Pageau and his career-high 24 goals: a first-rounder in 2020 (conditional; top-three protected), a second-rounder in 2020, and a conditional third- (in 2022) if the Islanders win the Cup. Repeat: a haul.
■ The Oilers made positive moves (Andreas Athanasiou, Mike Green, and Tyler Ennis), but Green (sprained MCL) and Athanasiou (lower body) were injured in their debuts. Green will miss 3-4 weeks.
■ The Kings, who picked up Northeastern standout Tyler Madden in the Tyler Toffoli deal with Vancouver, could be exciting in the mid-2020s. In the next two drafts, they have two first-round picks, five seconds, and four thirds.
■ Another old guy going Cup hunting: Ilya Kovalchuk, who teams up with his guy Alex Ovechkin in Washington. Love the Brenden Dillon move.
■ Did not expect Wayne Simmonds to waive his no-trade clause to go to Buffalo, but he’ll help that room amid another miserable season.
■ Other than trimming payroll, don’t understand how dealing Vincent Trocheck helps the Panthers, particularly since they didn’t get a defenseman. Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark are solid middle-six players, but Florida can’t defend consistently. And why didn’t the Panthers deal Mike Hoffman, since rental prices were so high?
■ Carolina made solid upgrades with Trocheck and defensemen Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. With netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek injured (and David Ayres presumably not available), will the Hurricanes regret not snagging a goalie?
Ryan’s return memorable night
Another one of the best stories in hockey happened this past week.
Bobby Ryan spent 100 days in the NHL’s Player Assistance Program and later revealed his battle with alcoholism. In his first game back at home with the Senators, Thursday against the Canucks, Ryan scored once, twice, and again. He fought tears on the bench as the crowd chanted “Bobby.”
Ryan, 32, has spent his career trying to live up to his draft position (No. 2, 2005, right behind Sidney Crosby) and contract ($7.25 million a pop). Ryan has delivered one 20-goal season since his seven-year, $50.75 million extension kicked in (2015-16), and had one goal in 17 games before leaving for the program.
The only number that mattered on Thursday was 100 — the number of days he had been sober.
Asked by Sportsnet if he believed in the hockey gods, after his first hat trick in nearly six years, Ryan said, “I do. But I didn’t think I’d be on their good side for everything that’s gone on in my personal life for the last little while. I guess they granted me some reprieve and gave me a good night.”
Ryan also fought Chris Tanev in his return, leaving him an assist shy of a three-goal Gordie Howe hat trick (the Golden Gordie?). The last player to record a hat trick, an assist, and a fighting major in a game was none other than Joe Thornton, against the Capitals on Jan. 5, 2002. Thornton scored a three-punch knockdown of Rob Zettler . . . Noel Acciari, the undrafted former Bruins plugger, scored his 20th goal Thursday. Of the 71 players to reach 20 by Friday, only six were making less than Acciari’s cap hit of $1.667 million, and all were 23 and under (Acciari is 28). Median salary of those in the 20-goal club: nearly $5.9 million. Worth noting that Acciari has six assists, the fewest in that group . . . Good to see Jay Bouwmeester back at a Blues game after his scary cardiac episode. His career plans are TBD . . . Bully for NHL Seattle, which announced it will pay for fans to use public transit to get to games. A game ticket equals a metro ticket. Also, the could-be Kraken have partnered with the city to upgrade the monorail system . . . The Bruins’ David Ayres analogue won’t be strapping up any time soon. Jason Piche, operations manager and ice resurfacer at Warrior Ice Arena, said he put on a pair of goalie pads once for a staff game when he worked at the University of Vermont. NHL scouts did not reach out to him afterward. He wouldn’t mind driving the rig at TD Garden, however, to check that off his bucket list.
Joe Bertagna, stepping aside as Hockey East commissioner after this year, will remain executive director of the American Hockey Coaches Association and coach goalies.