In front of more than 18,000 people, the emergency goalie blocked a series of shots that would lead the Carolina Hurricanes to victory.
But that came just moments after he hit the ice, and was hit in the face by fear. The 42-year-old father of three had already spent years sitting on the sidelines without getting his hopes up. When they called him, he admitted that he thought it was a joke at first.
But after the tean’s starting and other backup goalies were injured, it was his time to shine. And shine he did.
“Actually, I did think it was a prank,” the 42-year-old father of three said. “When the guy first came into the room he said, ‘Get your stuff on, we’re going out on the ice,’ I said, ‘Are you serious?'”
He was more than just trained on the ice – as the director of operations at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, a local arena in Toronto, he spent all day every day around the ice, along with his training to prepare him for this exact moment. But nothing can truly prepare someone for their first play for a professional team, until that moment itself comes.
He entered the game in the second period, and his team was in the lead 3-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. At first, he was too shaky on his feet – letting two goals in quick.
“The first two shots went in, and that wasn’t good for me,” he said. “It kind of killed the confidence for a second. I had to regroup. One of the players came down to me, and he said, ‘Just relax, this is gonna be fun for you, have a good time with it. We don’t care how many goals you let in, and let’s just have fun.'”
Then he made a redeeming save – followed shortly by seven more.
By the end of the game, Ayres had completely shut out the other team, and the Hurricanes took home a 6-3 win. Ayres personally left the ice to raging cheers from the fans.
If that wasn’t life-changing enough for him, he entered the locker room to another standing ovation from the other Hurricanes – who gave him a hurricane of their own in celebration of his role in the game.
“I had no idea that was coming,” he said. “Next thing you know I’m having the shower before I even get in the shower.”
After his kidney transplant, he thought his career was over. His own mother was the donor, so the night felt like a victory for her as well – she even called in the news with the following statement to her son: “I was always very proud of you from the beginning, and this has just made me so extremely proud,” she. “I have no words. I couldn’t sleep for the first night. It’s amazing.”
That night, Ayres played and won a life-changing game – but he also made a piece of history, becoming the oldest goalie in NHL history to celebrate a victory in their regular-season debut.
To commemorate it, his stick was sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.