There is a moment, before his name is announced to the fans just settling into their seats, when David Ayres can look out over the entirety of his new adopted hockey family and look at it, instead of the other way around as it usually is.
He can see a woman wearing a T-shirt with his name on it — and, since a few moments earlier — his signature, just one of the countless ordinary everyday fans who saw something in Ayres that touched or inspired or startled them.
He is the everyman hero, a story that no one could have predicted and would be expected to duplicate, and nowhere is that tale told or revered more than among these fans who would shortly hear his name and applaud wildly and turn to him with eyes that all silently say the same thing: That’s him.
And layered just below that: Maybe, just maybe, it could have been me.
Because there is some of that folded in among the adoration Ayres absorbs from Carolina Hurricanes fans, the emergency backup goalie — EBUG — pulled out of the stands in Toronto, a warm body to fill the Hurricanes’ empty net, and some way, somehow defeat the team he helped out in practice.
The movie writes itself: Ayres, then 42, father of three, kidney transplant recipient, ice technician, eking out a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in February 2020 and becoming an instant celebrity. Certainly that is true at home outside Toronto, but nowhere more than in the stands and parking lots of PNC Arena.
“It’s why we love to come back,” Ayres said. “The fans are fantastic. And we need a win. Everybody says this crowd goes absolutely nuts when they’re winning. They haven’t won yet since I’ve been here.”
On this third visit, there may have been more pressure on him Monday night than there was that insane evening in Toronto, with the goalie he somehow defeated that night, Frederik Andersen, now in the Hurricanes’ net. The reaction hasn’t changed in the intervening 20 months.
For Ayres and his wife Sarah, that took some adjusting. People taking pictures at the supermarket, interrupting family dinners. Fame, whether demanded or unasked for, extracts a price. The Ayres leveraged their loss of anonymity, raising money for the Kidney Foundation of Canada, but their old lives diverged into something else that night.
When they come here, though, the attention and adulation is nothing but invited and appreciated. It’s not why they are here -- there was an instant bond with the Hurricanes players and coaches and management, and they come to bask in that mutual warmth -- but it comes with the territory.
They came for the first time right after the game, amid Ayres national media tour, and were supposed to return a month later for a game against the Maple Leafs that was never played. Their second trip was during the playoffs last spring, sounding the siren before Game 1 of the second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and attending all five games of that series, home and away.
This time, they’re staying through Friday so Ayres can see the Hurricanes play the Boston Bruins on Thursday, the team Ayres grew up rooting for, but there’s no question all of those loyalties have shifted. He’s fully a Hurricanes fan now, because of the way that team — and its fans — embraced his unlikely story.
By now, the routine is familiar, but it does not get old.
“With him, I’ve seen the behind the scenes of everything,” Sarah Ayres said. “I’ve seen him go to two practices. I’ve seen him go to work afterward then come home and coach goalies and still be a dad on top of it. In a day. And I’ve seen him super sick and still do it. To watch him walk out there and everybody cheer for him is the ultimate proudest moment.”
As they wait by the siren for Ayres’ time to come, a fan asks him to sign a watercolor drawing of him in blue Leafs pants and a Hurricanes jersey. Another asks him to sign her shirt. Another wants a picture with him. He waves to the crowd as he is announced as “Hurricanes alum and legendary goaltender,” and people who didn’t know he was in the building turn with looks of genuine thrill.
“It’s wild,” Ayres says.
A few minutes later, Ayres cranks the siren. His technique is off -- he gets his thumb in an awkward spot -- but you’d never know it. The fans approve. The siren winds down and the cameras cut away. Ayres doesn’t wave or anything. He just turns away and rejoins his wife to head to their seats, but they only get a few feet onto their concourse before another fan stops them to tell them he was at the game that night in Toronto.
They’ll make it to their seats eventually, with their people, David Ayres once again just a fan among fans.